At some point in 2007, I become hopelessly addicted to World of Warcraft.
I was 24 years old, finishing art school, severely depressed and dealing with the fact that my life was just not going the way I expected. Somewhere around that time, during a drunken few hours in a restaurant in downtown Jerusalem, a friend and I created JarWow - a mod of World of Warcraft that translates the mechanics, races and areas of the game to early 21st century Jerusalem. Jerusalem seemed like a perfect stage for a complex MMO, with two culturally different factions in a bitter territory dispute. Conversely, World of Warcraft, which relies on simplification and stereotypes, cannot truly represent the complexity of modern Jerusalem.
I moved to Jerusalem in 1993, when I was nine years old; I left in 2009 when I was 26. The Oslo accords, a set of agreements made by Israel and Palestine which started the peace process, had just been signed in 1993, and while Jerusalem will never be entirely calm, there was a sense of hope in the air and some optimism - even if the question of the unification of the city continued to be a contentious issue. By 2007, the situation was completely different. The second intifada - the second Palestinian uprising against Israel and a period of intense violence - had ended, but its legacy lingered in the empty streets of downtown Jerusalem and the quiet tension between the different groups that share the city. This was a tension not just between the Jewish and Arab population, but also between the more traditional and more liberal forces in the city. While this tension would escalate again in the next few years (with Operation Cast Lead and the situation in Gaza just around the corner), at this point the status quo was maintained and the city was (at least on the surface) calm.
In 2007, World of Warcraft's popularity was massive and growing; in fact, by 2008 the game had reached 10 million players. It was also a very different game to the one that exists now. The game's first expansion, The Burning Crusade, had just came out, introducing two new races, a new zone, flying mounts and a new profession. The expansion didn't change much of the gameplay from the vanilla version, but it did streamline some aspects of the game (like levelling and finding dungeon groups) while providing new content and expanding on the lore. While it took me a long time to buy the Burning Crusade expansion, when I started playing the game most of those mechanics were in place, and the mod was based on the game at that particular point in time.
When pitching this story, I was hesitant to call JarWow a mod, as it is not an interactive digital product. The mod is just a spreadsheet on Google Drive. While WoW has some sort of modding community, mostly centered around creating add-ons and private servers, the game is just too much of a behemoth to create a digital mod of this magnitude. It is tempting to try and build a mod like that digitally, but I am not actually sure it is a smart idea to move beyond the theoretical model we created. The technical challenge of creating something like that, and the political consequences of setting up a game in a place like Jerusalem, makes it an interesting venture but not something I would recommend doing.
Another important note to consider is that we wrote it from our point of view at that time - secular, middle-class and liberal (for someone from Jerusalem). There is just no way to talk about Jerusalem and the people who live there without it being problematic and stereotypical, and so the mod only represents our personal point of view in the time we wrote it. Frankly, parts of it are cringeworthy, others are just baffling, and some are downright problematic. Some of it is possibly a product of being slightly inebriated while writing, as well as not being critical about how we use stereotypes and present people who do not belong to the groups we usually communicate with.
JarWoW is a simple mod. What we did was take the existing races, classes, professions, cities, areas, pets and mounts and directly translate them into what we considered to be their equivalent in Jerusalem at that time. It was a fun little exercise and was probably not as well thought-out as it should be, but it can still highlight some of the challenges of translating video games into reality and into real-life situations. Since the mod is based on a specific location, some of the things I mention will be unfamiliar to most readers. I will try my best to explain some of the specifics.
The first thing we did was to find the Jerusalem analogy for the Horde and the Alliance. In 2007, the city was gearing up to its next mayoral election. The three candidates, Nir Barkat, Arkadi Gaydamak and Meir Porush represented three very different points of view about the future of Jerusalem, as well as different subsets of the Jewish population of the city. The Arab population in Jerusalem (at least the one in East Jerusalem) generally chooses not to vote in elections, as they feel it will validate Israel's claim on the city. This means that they usually have no representation in the municipal elections.
Nir Barkat, the eventual winner and current mayor of Jerusalem, was a secular Jew and political centrist (at the time), which was very popular among the secular Jews who felt that the current mayor gave too much power to the Haredim (ultra-orthodox Jews). Meir Porush, the Haredi candidate, eventually lost the elections due to infighting among his base as well as anger about the Haredim influence on the city. Gaydamak was the most interesting candidate of the three, a Russian immigrant, an alleged arms-dealer and owner of the Beitar Jerusalem F.C. - an outsider who was trying to court some of the secular Jews as well as the Arab vote.
This election, and the candidates, were used as the template for the Jerusalem version of the Horde and Alliance, with the Alliance version being what we considered to be to be the constituency of Nir Barakt, while the Horde is represented by Gaydamak.
The races of JarWow
(Zion Square is a square in Jerusalem where a lot of teens - especially those who didn't feel like they fitted into the conservative Jerusalem culture - used to stay during the 90s and early 2000s. it was a sort of legendary place in Jerusalem and being a frequent visitor of the square was an identity marker for a lot of teens.)
(Beitar Jerusalem F.C. is the biggest football team in Jerusalem. Its fans are known for their right-wing views and hatred of Arabs. They are also known for their influence on the inner politics of the Likud party in Israel, which is the current ruling party.)
Let's start with the good. In the world of Warcraft, the conflict between Orcs and Humans forms the backbone of the game lore, and the storyline about the Horde and the Alliance is centered around the animosity between the two groups. In the mod, instead of focusing on the obvious conflict between Jews and Arabs, the main conflict is between the Secular Jews and the Haredi Jews, or between the progressive and the conservative elements in the city. As a Secular Jew in Jerusalem, this conflict was far more important, and had a lot more influence on my daily life, than whatever was happening in east Jerusalem. In fact, Nir Barkat's eventual win in the election, and his nomination, was based on this conflict and the anger around the power wielded by the Haredim in city hall at the time (the mayor at the time, Uri Lupolianski, was Haredi).
The Horde, and the choices we made for the Horde "races" is the more successful of the two sides. While some of the choices are odd (like the Americans) and some of the associations are not exactly clear, overall the mod keeps the spirit of the Horde while fitting it to Jerusalem. Like the Horde, this selection is built on groups who do not have that much in common (and might hate each other), but their outsider statuses might bind them. Even the use of Gaydamak is good: while he was not a very popular candidate (even among his potential voters), his position as the outsider candidate fits very well with this concept. The idea of the leader of the Horde being an unpopular leader, even among his own people, also aligns well with some of the later World of Warcraft lore.
As a note, I am not exactly sure why we put Arabs as Undead. Possibly it was a random choice or choosing Orcs as their race was a bit too obvious of a choice. It is actually not a bad choice, if from the point of view of the mod (Jewish, Secular), as the undead are part of the horde but are mistrusted by the rest of it, similarly to the relationship between the Arabs in Jerusalem and the other groups we have listed.
The most obvious problem is the fact that there are some very prominent groups who are missing from the list. While some of the groups which are featured are a very small subset of another group, other, bigger groups are just missing. The most glaring omission is the Christians, but there are a few other groups we probably should have considered. The Alliance suffers the most from that problem, to the point that there is very little difference between our versions of Dwarf, Draenei and Night Elves. In a way, our version of the Alliance just became groups we knew well and got along with.
Some of this issue is born from our own biases controlling our decisions, but also from the makeup of the Alliance in World of Warcraft. The Alliance is just a group of overly nice races that banded together because of a looming threat, and overall seem to like and respect each other. That means that the Alliance is just not as dynamic as the Horde (sorry, Alliance players) and not as interesting as the Horde story-wise. So, when you translate the Alliance races, you have to find groups that tend to get along with each other. That is not an easy feat when dealing with a place like Jerusalem, where even the Christian Priests tend to have fistfights every Easter in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. That leaves you with a lot of sub-groups who generally get along, but don't really represent a large subset of the citizens of Jerusalem.
The world of JarWow
(Note about the map: this is based on a municipal map of Jerusalem and, like everything else, it is very political.)
This is the part where the mod had the most potential. Jerusalem is not one city, rather it is a few cities with very clear divisions and areas that have very little in common with each other. The most obvious (and well-known) division is the separation between the predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem and predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, but it is not the only one. North Jerusalem and South Jerusalem are also divided, with North Jerusalem being mostly Orthodox Jewish while the South is more Secular and Conservative Jewish. There is also the Old City, which tends to have its own inner politics and divisions. It doesn't mean that those areas do not bleed into each other, but there is a tendency in Jerusalem to just stay in one's own side.
It is also easy to identify the neighborhoods, especially when you get to the southern parts of Jerusalem, as there are very clear borders between them due to the hilly terrain. Basically, each neighborhood is set up on a different hill, so it is very easy to note where one area ends and the next one begins (this is very similar to some areas in World of Warcraft). The main issue with the neighborhood division is the fact that all the neighborhoods in Jerusalem tend to look the same because of construction laws. That means, from a level design point of view, it is very hard to have specific differences in each area that will signal to the player that they are leaving or entering a new zone.
Generally, the less contentious areas (for Jerusalem) were the starting areas and were defined by the nature of the neighborhood. For example, Bayit Vegan is a religious neighborhood of mostly conservative Jews that is in a relatively safe area in west Jerusalem. The main issue with the starting areas' selection is related to some of the "race" choices. As some of them are very similar (especially in the Alliance) their starting areas are the same, or in very close proximity. While this has a precedent in World of Warcraft, with the Orc/Troll and Gnome/Dwarf starting areas in the same vicinity, at this point those choices feel too random.
We also identified several areas which could be used as raids, dungeons and arenas. The old city was chosen as a raid zone. It has a structure that is similar to a WoW raid - four sections, each distinct and having different enemies, well-defined trash mobs (tourists) and areas of specific importance. There are even a few different gates that can be used as different entry points to the raid. Other dungeon areas included Independence Park in Downtown Jerusalem, a park that was known known at the time for being the gay cruising area in Jerusalem, as well as where a lot of the junkies used to hang out. It also has a lot of interesting history which mostly involved ancient burial sites - and controversy around those. Then there's Meah Shearim neighborhood, a famous Haredi neighborhood, and Maale Adumim, a large settlement in the west bank.
All of those are solid choices but I am surprised that we didn't have Gehenna (Gay Ben Hinnom/Valley of Hinnom) on the list. The Valley of Hinnom is a small valley near the old city of Jerusalem. According to legends, in ancient times, the valley was the place where children were sacrificed by fire and the place was cursed. In Hebrew, the word Gehinnom (which is a shortened name of the valley) is the word for hell.
Arenas and battlegrounds were the Russian Compound and the Malha Mall. They are solid choices, but in hindsight I would have made the mall into a neutral city (like Dalaran), as despite the occasional eruption of violence, mostly after a football game, it is a gathering place for most of the city's population.
We also set up a city for each race (as can be seen below):
(Tzur Haddash is a settlement outside Jerusalem, and was a very popular destination for young people who couldn't afford the prices in Jerusalem. A gay couple we knew at that time was living there, so we decided to make it into the main city for the queer residents of Jerusalem.)
(Mike's Place at that time was a pub in downtown Jerusalem that was popular with teens who were on Birthright trips)
The city selection is fine (and generally fits each group), except that most of the cities are not set at the same starting zone as those groups. Except for Zion Square and Moon Square, most of the other cities are located in totally different neighborhoods as the starting zone. In some cases (like Bezalel Academy of Art and Design) the city is located in the opposite side. While it works with the structure of the mod, it doesn't really work well with the mechanics of World of Warcraft and will make progression difficult for newer players.
Classes, professions and mounts
The last thing we created were the Jerusalem versions of the classes and the professions.
The class separation works, even if some of it might be too general and not particularly specific to Jerusalem. The choice for the Warrior class is probably the best one, as security guards are a very common sight in Jerusalem. I might have changed them to police as it would have allowed us to have some variations between the Horde and the Alliance. The Shaman and the Warlocks are the weakest and don't really feel like they take into account some of the lore of those classes. In hindsight I would have possibly put some sub-groups and smaller minorities as classes instead of the more general classes we have now. The first one that came to mind was Breslover Hasidim, an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect that believes in serving God with joyful existence, as Shamans. It does mean I would have had to find sub-groups who have similarities that can be used as Horde/Alliance analogies for the same class. Unsurprisingly, Priest was the easiest class to fill and probably the only one I would keep as is.
Like the classes, the list itself is not as focused as it could be. In cases when it does get very specific (Tailoring for example) the professions tend to be very Jewish-centric. The generalism of the profession choices is not necessarily bad and works quite well with the mechanics of the professions in World of Warcraft, but the choices should feel less random.
We also tried figuring out some of the mounts that the players can use, including possible racial mounts. Those mounts included: bicycles, Birthright buses, skateboards, a Subaru Impreza, BMWs and rollerblades. In terms of public transportation (Zeppelin/Ships in WoW), The Horde used public buses while The Alliance used taxi cabs. The Mounts are an interesting case. As the mod is based on a real place there is a limited pool of choices; basically we needed to choose vehicles that people will actually use. But that doesn't mean we can't expand on the choices. For one thing, East Jerusalem has its own public transportation system and so do some of the Settlements and Haredi neighborhoods. Since parts of Jerusalem are rural (especially in the east), beasts of burden like donkeys and horses are also an option.
A few months ago, during a job interview at a large triple-A company, I managed to horrify the person who was interviewing me by jokingly saying that the company's next game should be set in Jerusalem. There was a good reason why he was horrified: setting a game in Jerusalem is undoubtedly a controversial decision that will never end well for the company making the game.
The thing is, while writing this article, I suddenly remembered how amazing, and odd, and crazy Jerusalem is, and the amazing stories that can be told there. I am now excited by the ideas of designing the Old City as a raid: How will the map look? How will players navigate such a space? Who will be the bosses? How will the fight mechanics work? Jerusalem is a fascinating place to explore, it has a compelling and complex narrative, obvious conflicts and interesting history which can be drawn upon and used as the inspiration for video games.
In a way, I might be in a special position. I don't think there are a lot of game developers who grew up in Jerusalem, and while I would probably get some pushback for making such a game, I am probably more immune to it than most developers.
Maybe the sign of a true Jerusalemite is casually horrifying people around you by making a game about a place that should not be in a game.