It’s hard for me to remember the context in which I first (or, really, ever) heard the phrase “Leeeerrroy Jeeenkiiinnss!” – one that can never exist but for some reason it was familiar to me when I encountered it in Tanner Higgin’s “Blackless Fantasy: The Disappearance of Race in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games”. This uncanny feeling of cultural déjà vu taps into precisely the “common sense” comedy and the less-than-conscious understanding of the Leeroy Jenkins meme. Its transcendence of the World of Warcraft milieu to mainstream popular culture was unprecedented, and its enduring significance points to enduring problems of representation in video game play.
The video that propelled Leeroy Jenkins to meme-dom was titled “A Rough Go”, posted to the World of Warcraft video page. Now, the most viewed version of the video on Youtube is simply titled “Leeroy Jenkins”, which interestingly shifts the comedic element of video away from the parody of a recognizable WoW scenario. Instead, the humor, in the decontextualized instance, falls onto the screaming character as a recognizable “type” that is recognizable for its significance outside of the fantasy world.
The WoW Archivist article on the subject is one of many commentaries on the meme that ignores the issue of race entirely, and naively asserts:
“Sociologists have spent countless hours trying to determine precisely why the Leeroy joke is so funny to people on such a large scale, when many of those people may not even understand the minutiae of the gag. I’ll take care of it for you, guys: People love seeing other people do dumb things, especially when there’s an element of surprise.”
This speaks to precisely what Higgin is driving at in his article, where the general population tends to shy away from discussions of real world race in MMORPGs, where it is perceived that “race does not and should not matter because everything is just made up of pixels” (Higgin, 7). The comedy is not simply about “other people do[ing] dumb things”, it’s about the recognizability of the types of people who do types of dumb things, which relies on the historically embedded intersection of race (and racism) and comedy.
“[…] Leeroy Jenkins, is a stereotypical Black character who has many connections to the ‘‘Zip Coon’’ made famous in minstrel shows. Leeroy’s name is, similar to Tyrone, a stereotypical African American name. His voice, performed by a White man, is an exaggerated version of the deep and stumbling voices associated with characters from minstrel shows or their legacy in radio, television, and film. Similar to the character of the Zip Coon, Leeroy is comedic because he attempts to assimilate into the group but eventually screws everything up— proving his idiocy”. (Higgin 6)
The Zip Coon stereotype is driven home by Leeroy’s final utterance, “At least I have chicken!”
The fact that it is “popular” culture is important for two reasons, the first being because the label automatically prohibits it from being politically charged. The second reason, as I previously began to mention, is that it needs no context to support itself – it thrives within our cultural logics, seemingly detached from context, yet invisibly propped up by our prejudices.
The case of Leeroy Jenkins is not a marker of representation, so much as it is the marker of erasure – where parody has supplanted participation, and “recognizable” forms of blackness exist in popular imagination as stereotypes that continuously reassert that social inequality is natural. The minstrelsy employed here under the guise of comedy for comedy’s sake, I suspect, exists for a similar reason to why my white, 18-year-old, middle class Jewish male cousin yells out “KOBEEEEE!” in a deep booming voice any time he makes a headshot kill in whatever the most recent first person shooter game he’s playing is, and never have to question what makes him say it. This unconscious propensity to inhabit black masculinity (expressed as “humorously” performative) reveals the disturbing fetishiztion of black men by white boys/men; Higgin says it best, “White fantasies and desires of hypermasculinity and sexuality can be inscribed on the Black body and performed without punishment.” (Higgin 16) In the case of MMORPGs, where black bodies tend not to even be present, the case of Leeroy Jenkins proves that the two-pronged desire for racial embodiment as well as subjugation does not disappear with the exclusion of those black bodies.
Higgin, Tanner. “Blackless Fantasy: The Disappearance of Race in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games.” Games and Culture. 4.3: 2009. 3-26.