WoW Factor: The shabby ethics of Blizzard’s ‘Hong Kong liberation’ ban

Just absolute galaxy brain

Hooo boy, this was not an article I really expected to write this week.

So, by now everyone’s surely seen the news that Blizzard banned a professional Hearthstone player for stating support for Hong Kong’s protests against the Chinese government in his victory interview, something that… well, it’s not so much “bad optics” as it is a terrible decision that includes bad optics, but let’s just go with bad optics. Major news organizations are now calling it an “international incident” and it’s on every site from the BBC to WAPO, with politicians left and right taking Blizzard’s measure and finding it wanting.

It also doesn’t help one bit that this comes right on the heels of Blizzard’s big World of Warcraft 8.3 infodump and interview tour, which seemed like a pretty clear play to start winning back the crowd based on current reception.

I don’t really want to go into the historical details of the conflict going on right now in China, both because our original post outlines the situation pretty well and because I am not actually confident in my ability to summarize this without missing or misrepresenting a crucial detail. No, I want to talk about the ethics going into this particular decision as well as player responses because while I don’t usually cover Hearthstone in this column, you can’t really separate the two.

Let’s start by answering a question that’s pretty clear-cut but also completely misses the point. Is Blizzard allowed to do this? The answer, very simply, is obviously Blizzard can do whatever it wants with its games and esports, including not have them at all.

Seriously, if you’re pointing to specific rules that players or competitors agreed to, you’re just ignoring the fact that Blizzard has phrased those rules such that if it so decides, it can ban you for wearing a band shirt the people in charge don’t like. That’s just the way it is. Blizzard is allowed to ban you if the company thinks you’re making it look bad, and while it’s generally been accepted that this clause is in place to prevent people from being allowed to throw up Nazi salutes after winning a tournament, it can also extend to their deciding that no Grateful Dead fan is going to be the face of Overwatch esports.

And no, “free speech” isn’t relevant here either. Blizzard gets to decide what it is that makes Blizzard look bad.

In this particular case, the real question to ask isn’t whether the company can but whether it should, and what would actually make it look bad. The world is full of things you can do but probably shouldn’t, like chewing thumbtacks or wearing a hornet nest as a hat or… well, this.

This was not really the sort of moral ambiguity anyone signed up for.

China is a pretty huge market for games, especially Blizzard’s games, and the last thing Blizzard wants is to lose that market. The Chinese government takes a very strong interest in controlling what is and is not for sale over there, and you can already tell where Blizzard runs into the woods here.

Here’s the funny thing: It’s entirely possible – maybe even plausible – that the government had no direct influence on this particular decision. I’d be completely willing to believe that Blizzard’s community team saw this happening, someone raised the idea that it might cause a problem, and then some bright spark on the team had the idea of getting out ahead of any government complaint. So now he’s banned, and the commentators who hid behind their desks are axed, all because he was making Blizzard look bad to the Chinese government. Problem solved, right?

Well… no, that actually makes Blizzard’s problem notably worse. See, at this point, Blizzard’s stuck between a rock and a hard place of its own creation because now the government no doubt is going to notice (this is kind of big news) and so has the rest of the world. Walking back on the existing actions means acknowledging that previous actions were too pro-government, which is definitely going to attract ire. Keeping things where they are attracts domestic ire.

Again, this part is speculation. It’s entirely possible that Luo Shugang of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism called Blizzard within five minutes of a video game tournament interview broadcast and said “either he’s banned or you are,” although he probably would have said it in Chinese. Or even something less dramatic than that. The point is mostly that even if this was a problem for Blizzard before, it has most definitely now become an intractable problem, and what has been done doesn’t actually solve anything but rather exacerbates the issue.

Similarly, the question over whether or not the company can do something is irrelevant. Should is relevant. Regardless of how you feel about the situation in Hong Kong, this sends a clear message about the bar that Blizzard has established for when player and competitor opinions and public statements become actionable on its end, and this is not a case of “we don’t permit actual hate speech” but “we don’t permit speech that is potentially counter to our financial interests.”

If that makes you uncomfortable? Then yes, cancelling pre-orders and deactivating subscriptions is a good reaction. It’s pretty clear that this was an action motivated by financial interests rather than ideological ones, so ensuring that Blizzard incurs an associated financial cost, however reasonable, is an entirely reasonable way to respond to it.

Going under.

That’s not to say that I think it’s the only possible way to respond to it, even if you think “yes, this was a bad decision by Blizzard and I disagree with the banning, the implicit ideological establishment, or both.” Once the decision was made, a certain amount of hunkering down was inevitable simply by the nature of corporate inertia. There was never going to be a scenario in which players were upset and this was reversed immediately; even the tragically foolish RealID plan took a few drubbings in the public square before it was deemed untenable and truly shut down.

In light of the sheer volume of backlash, of course, I don’t really think this one is going to stand without challenge. My guess (again, speculation) is that Blizzard really thought this was something that could be handled out of sight and no one would even notice. That window has long since passed, and it definitely did not pass without notice, nor should it have. The studio will need to find a much more delicate balance than before.

At the same time, the bad takes I’ve seen floating around that it’s somehow out of Blizzard’s hands and the decision-makers at the company are innocent victims are also pretty terrible. You’re welcome to think that China is the majority of the company’s market share, but facts are not on your side. This wasn’t motivated by “losing this market hypothetically kills the studio” but by a desire not to lose about 10% of revenue by allowing someone to speak. Sure, that’s not pocket change, but it’s pretty normal quarter-to-quarter loss if the company in question cares about making a stand.

Well, except that it wouldn’t be the company making a stand. It’s someone else making a stand and the company in question just not censoring that.

The bottom line is that it’s really hard to sell a narrative of players being heroes when a player puts himself at great personal risk to show support human rights currently being trampled… and the company responds with a ban and a financial penalty. If you want to argue that this was something Blizzard “had” to do, you can’t then ignore the fact that some of the backlash would be lessened if that excuse were being communicated in some way to players and fans, even without taking an official stance on the issue.

I can make recommendations about what to do with your personal gaming time, but I can’t tell you what to do. I can’t say that the right thing to do is to refuse giving Blizzard any more of your money, especially when this is something that happened less than 24 hours ago and we have yet to see how it’ll play out. But I can say that if Blizzard is the victim here, it’s only a victim of itself, not of its circumstances.

Blizzard chose to take the actions it’s taken. And I think it’s entirely fitting to choose to give it no more time accordingly.

MassivelyOP’s full coverage of the issue can be found here:

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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