WoW Factor: Blizzard’s nonpology and the ethics of boycotting

    
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HOW DID THIS HAPPEN SO PREDICTABLY!

Last time we were here, we discussed the intensely shoddy ethics of Blizzard’s behavior surrounding the banning of Hearthstone professional Ng “Blitzchung” Wai Chang. That was less than a week ago. Since that point, the immense amount of global backlash including widespread boycotts pushed Blizzard to finally respond to the situation (which should have happened on, you know, Tuesday) and roll back much of the bans as well as the monetary penalty to Blitzchung. All caught up? Great. Because we are, unsurprisingly, still not done here.

See, while the wound might have been cleaned and bandaged, it’s still there. It’s the sort of thing that leads to some people questioning whether Blizzard has changed, or – far more unsettling – if this is what Blizzard always was and we’re just now realizing it. And that brings up the question of whether or not the apology (which, as noted, never actually uses words like “sorry” or “regret” or “apologize” despite ostensibly being an apology) actually ameliorates anything, or whether or not you should continue boycotting World of Warcraft, or what.

Here’s the good news: Whether or not you should keep boycotting is actually a pretty simple question to answer! Assuming you answer a bunch of much more complicated questions first. I have got to stop leading with “good news” in sentences.

Hello, I am still the villain.

Your crappy global ex-boyfriend

Blizzard’s “apology” was really about what I expected. It made the changes to the penalties that I expected and struck the tone that I expected, which is to say that it was a letter that kept restating “we’re so sorry this happened” in a way that did not actually use the words “sorry” at all. If you’re reminded of your boyfriend saying that he’s sorry you got upset when he made out with your roommate, well, that’s by design.

This was, realistically, the best I think we could have expected from Blizzard. Because, well… this is Blizzard. This is how Blizzard handles things, right down to never admitting that it has screwed up as an entity and needs to change.

Remember, this is the same company that, when faced with an angry playerbase decrying the game’s latest expansion and its mechanical changes, dwindling subscriber numbers, and a generally poor reception of every element of Battle for Azeroth, released a video in which the announcement was functionally “we may have gone too far.” Not even willing to admit full culpability in that should have been a red flag of the sort otherwise used to drape over Soviet spacecraft in the 1960s.

Whether or not it’s right (it’s not), Blizzard does not apologize for its mistakes. If at all possible, Blizzard doesn’t even admit that the mistakes happened in the first place. And for heaven’s sake, it wasn’t even that long ago that I wrote about how Blizzard’s lack of firm standards in favor of situational calls for everything was an enormous problem with how these things are run.

So what we could hope for, really, was a non-apology that contained positive walkbacks of the terrible call that had been initially made. This was what we got. It was still harsher than I had personally expected (I had figured the hosts would be unbanned altogether), but it was actually positive action about fixing the problem that Blizzard caused basically through its own organizational stupidity. This is at least half of what this particular communique needed to do.

The other half, of course, was to mollify feelings. Blizzard handled that… not at all. If you were genuinely angry at Blizzard on Thursday, you are unlikely to have read that piece and then found yourself saying, “Oh, well, that all seems reasonable and I’m no longer upset.” If anything, it served as a reminder that this is exactly what the company is, if you’d somehow managed to avoid all the other signs.

So it’s a decent attempt at repairing bad actions and absolute garbage as an apology. But what does that mean for those of us on the ground, so to speak?

This game really provides no shortage of illustrations we need for this.

Corrective boycotts, punitive boycotts, and where to go

The weaksauce non-apology, of course, makes no mention of the widespread boycotts that rocked the company to an… unknown degree. Since we have no hard metrics, it’s hard to be sure how much of an influence the boycott had on the company’s overall plan, but it seems safe to say that it was a significant influence on the ultimate course correction.

Here’s where we get into the thorny stuff. If you were boycotting Blizzard until the company did something… well, it did. This has been done. And the reality is that I’d bet good money that it’s not going to do anything more now that it has taken action and reversed bans about as far as they’re going to be reversed. (Remember, this isn’t about what should be done; it’s about what will be done.)

In other words, from a practical sense it’s easy to look at it as “boycott worked, boycott over.” From an emotional sense that almost stops mattering because it’s still a non-apology for cowardly actions from a company that has a terrible attitude. So what are players or former players supposed to do? What are the ethics of boycotting or not now?

The answer to that, simply enough, is what you want to have happen. Do you want Blizzard to crash out hard?

See, the reason that I stress that the studio has most likely done everything that it’s going to do to correct its shoddy behavior before with its equally shoddy written response is because, well, that doesn’t mean that everything needs to go back to normal. It’s entirely reasonable to look at the way all of this was handled and decide that this is a studio you no longer wish to interact with at all as a response.

No, that doesn’t mean that you’re a hypocrite if you can’t or won’t cut out every business in the world that has some interactions with China. Entertainment – especially entertainment predicated on themes about justice, truth to power, and heroic behavior – forms an emotional response with us that a lot of other things don’t. It is completely reasonable to say that you can’t support Blizzard at all now because it’s very clear to you that all of those ideals the studio espoused were values that the company didn’t hold.

What is important is that, well… at that point you’re not really boycotting the company any longer; you’re cutting ties. You are walking away for good. This isn’t an objection to an action that the company might change; this is an objection to the very nature of the studio.

This is a perfectly reasonable decision. It’s just important to understand what your actual end goal is and what effect it’s going to have.

The monolith.

Don’t misunderstand me; there’s a grim beauty in watching Mei becoming a symbol for Hong Kong’s protests in a very guided attempt to make Overwatch anathema to China and thereby ensure that the entire premise of Blizzard’s cowardly actions doesn’t even work. My point isn’t that it’s wrong to want the company to be smashed to pieces; my point is that you should be honest if that’s what you actually want to happen.

This means that yes, much as before, there isn’t a hard-and-fast line of whether or not it’s ethical to still boycott Blizzard. I think that you have every right to say that you simply can’t stand what the company is at this point and stay away. The trick is, well… you have to recognize that’s what you’re saying. You’re not boycotting until X happens; you’re leaving for good because you can’t in good conscience support what Blizzard is compared to what you thought it was.

And if you really want to chew on some food for thought: This is exactly why Blizzard doesn’t ever apologize or admit wrongdoing. It’s learned exactly the wrong lesson from the truism that actions speak louder than words because it’s clear that people run out of anger so long as the company does at least enough stuff that any guilt over not walking away gets overpowered by the desire to go back to something fun.

The world is a hot mess right now. Life is stressful. And heaven help you, Overwatch is fun. Or Hearthstone is fun, or World of Warcraft is fun, or you’re really looking forward to Warcraft III: Reforged, and at the end of the day even if Blizzard is awful the company still patched things up there, right? Screw it, re-download StarCraft 2.

Here’s the thing: That’s not unethical. That’s just… being human and being faced with a complex multifaceted problem that ties into things far bigger than you and far bigger than anything you can directly affect. It’s arguably the right call to have some soul-searching over this event and decide on a course of action that you can live with, even if that decision winds up being something like, “Maybe I should donate more money to supporting protests like this, instead of just holding it back from a game studio.”

It knows you sinned.

But there is an unethical

So we’re clear on all that, right? It’s not wrong to say that you can no longer support the company. It’s also not wrong to say that you don’t like them, but you do want to play these games and you’re not ready to walk away from Blizzard forever. It’s not even wrong to say, for example, that you’re withholding judgment until you see what happens on November 1st.

But what is unethical is acting like there’s no question to ask.

You’ll recall that my first piece on this whole crisis argued that it’s understandable if for whatever reason you don’t join the boycott. And I think there’s a space for both saying that you can no longer enjoy Blizzard’s games and saying that you don’t like this but the world is horrible and Overwatch makes you happy. As noted. Where we get into actual unethical behavior is when we see the people upset about this, when we see the controversy erupting over this, and act as if it doesn’t count or deserve serious consideration.

Fans and fansites should ideally be keeping a watch on Blizzard. These are not official parts of the company. These are the voices of people who have fun with this stuff. And speaking as fans to point out that a company is doing something bad is part of that relationship. Yes, it means you may need to have more introspection than you want about what you do with your free time. Protesters don’t want to be in the streets having to shout for democracy and face violent retribution. Suck it up.

At the end of the day, what we have are a series of shoddy decisions made by a company that assumes its primacy is beyond challenge and it doesn’t need to think beyond that. It did undo some of its worst behaviors, but it also exposed an ugly truth about its character. Whether it was always there or just grew like a cancer is going to depend on everyone’s individual views.

That should raise some questions. It raises questions that don’t necessarily have clean answers, and you don’t need to ultimately justify yourself for what those answers end up being. I certainly don’t want to be the one to tell somebody that the only right thing to do is stop playing a game he loves because the people who made it are garbage; that’s taking joy from him for things he has no control over.

But the real shoddy ethics? That’s when you decide to run away from the whole question and act like nothing happened at all. That’s denying the introspection necessary. You may or may not be able to let go of what Blizzard is, but you do have to grapple with it.

At the end of the day, that’s the hard work of ethics. You ask questions, and they don’t have fixed answers, and you do your best to do the right thing. If the questions are hard to answer, that means they’re the right ones to ask.

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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Jay Johnson

This isnt about Hong Kong or Blizzard alone. This is a beginning of a much bigger problem. Do we let china pressure companies into censoring western content. You may support Hong Kong or not but it does not matter what age you are you should never give up your right to freedom of speech so willingly. There’s this mentality, its just a gaming company it doesnt matter, no. This issue hs been featured on many many major news outlets, many companies are under pressure because they let China dictate their content. This isnt a topic you can ignore. Censorship through financial power should never be okay. Especially not with conpanies that so directly speak out for freedom of speech. This is how you loose battles slowly but surely step by step. I will not give up my rights, I do not want my children to grow up in a world where they have to be afraid of what they say or do. boycott blizzard, because blizzard owes it to us, to be true to its fans.

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Kherova

Couldn’t agree more! 👍

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Adam Russell

While I fully support people’s right (and perhaps duty) to boycott, the disconnect I see here is that people are boycotting Blizzard over a single incident and yet there have been calls to boycott goods from China for over 50 years and nothing ever happens. People still buy Made in China.

Poker Brat
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Poker Brat

Massively has done a great job covering this. Elliot really puts this in perspective. Like Tyler’s write up a few days ago, the Blizzard I knew and had so much enjoyment out of is dead, and for me has been dead for a few years now. The company has become down right creepy in some aspects, and as much as i love the Warcraft IP, I just can’t bring myself to support a company like this. I know not everyone feels that way, and thats ok. We all have a choice where to spend our free time and money.

I’ll never forget the great times I had with friends especially in WOW. I cherish them and share them. But the company and I have moved on. I will not support Blizzard or Activision. And not only because of the current shitshow, this has been a long time in the making. Another commenter said that after Metzen left they looked at the storyline as fan fiction. I thought about that and have to agree.

As far as Blizzard ever admitting a mistake…I’m not holding my breathe. The studio is like an addict thats been forced to rehab. It wont work. Until the addict WANTS to be sober, they will never be. They have to WANT it. The last thing Blizzzard /Activision wants is to admit to any mistake.

Gamers have grown tired of the corporate spin of the Community managers and PR departments. They want to be talked to as what they are, REAL people. Mess up? Admit it. Reaction to Cover up is always far worse than the crime. Bite the bullet early.

I have to wonder…how many other studios will now turn their backs on their western audience for perceived gains in China? Will the gains outrun the losses over here? It’s a gamble for sure. This isn’t the last time we will be here. There will be more, just not so in our faces as this one…

Poker Brat
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Poker Brat

Sorry about the SP Eliot…hadn’t had my quota of coffee yet!!

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Jim Bergevin Jr

Well done Eliot. I think we see here the continuing dicotomy between real sports and reports, and the continuing inability of the gaming industry to adapt to and handle the spotlight of a national stage.

When an athlete thanks the diety if their belief during an interview, they are making a statement. When people express concern after a national or international tragedy, they are making a statement. Nobody thinks anything of it and nobody gets punished. You can’t bury your head in the sand and hide from this.

Our art forms have always been influenced by and used as a tool for political and societal statements. And games are no different. Whether it is in your face like Chung, or more subtle, like the evolution of Lara Croft, it is all around our industry and community. It’s long past time for us to grow up and accept it.

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Dro Gul

Not playing a game for 3 days is not a boycott. It’s like saying “I’m not gonna wear these Nike sneakers I already bought because they did XYZ”. Who cares?

If you want a boycott, don’t buy the next big game Blizzard launches.

Techno Wizard
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Techno Wizard

Finally a BlizzCon this year where I will be genuinely entertained.

Mordyjuice
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Mordyjuice

It’s simple for me, what Blizzard did was wrong, that said I still enjoy WoW/WoW Classic/Diablo 3, my interest in what will be presented at Blizzcon hasn’t been diminished and eventually I’ll resub to WoW.

Does that make me a horrible person, not ‘woke’ enough; I’m 40 and I really don’t give a shit to be honest. I put my full time hours in, hell as a Health Care worker I probably do more to improve society than any one caught up in the latest outrage culture moment trying to appear on the correct side of the moral of the story. When I’m home I want to enjoy what I enjoy, for example I enjoy Blizzard Games, Louis CK is still my favorite comedian regardless of whether he masturbated in front of some women in his office, I still enjoy Kevin Spacey’s body of work, dare I say I will always groove to 1980s Michael Jackson if Thriller comes on the radio.

It is perfectly acceptable to appreciate the art, and not the artist; the art is the child of the artist; to me it’s no different than looking at the kids of a monster as separate entities worthy of their own merit.

I’m sure people will have their own opinions, I might get a few heated responses, I don’t care it won’t change anything and I won’t lose any sleep over it.

Alyn
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Alyn

Some will say that eventually this whole incident will “blow over” and be lost to history. Yes, for those people that is quite true. However not for everyone. Maybe they will be in the minority, yet they will always remember. Case in point is what happened with SoE’s Star Wars Galaxy. Many still hold the day that this mmo fundamentally changed forever.

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
Buddha

-just something to think about-

Great article once again, Eliot.

jimthomasUS
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jimthomasUS

Massively has done a superb job covering a complex issue that at its core is not that complex at all: consumers can vote with their dollars to express their values and this is especially true when dealing with a non-essential like entertainment.

A very nice summation Eliot and a reason why I come back to this site year after year.

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Matthew Yetter

Freedom of speech is only protected when it comes to public protests against the U.S. government. If you are protesting on a privately funded platform, you have no such protections. Even here on MassivelyOP, the team is fully within their rights to delete any posts that any of us make, for any reason at all. It’s a privately owned and operated forum. (Of course, if they got heavy handed with such censorship, they would quickly lose readers and directly harm themselves in the process.)

The company that I work for operates a user forum and we do not allow it to be used for any sort of political grandstanding. It doesn’t matter one whit whether we personally agree with the sentiment being expressed, the reality is that we are a business and it harms that business every time such political statements appear because while most of our customers may agree with what is expressed, many will likely not agree. So, for the sake of our business, our policy is simply that no such posts are allowed. It is expected that Blizzard would have a similar policy for the sake of their own business, and it is expected that they would enforce such a policy.

Ignoring the political grandstanding aspect, the college team did something even worse: They used a Blizzard-sponsored platform to call for a boycott of Blizzard. There is no way that doesn’t directly hurt Blizzard and the company is totally within its rights to both censor and censure them.

That being said, policies are only fair when they are enforced uniformly. Blizzard totally messed up by not initially banning the team. It’s good that they have now at last done so, but they really hurt themselves by taking so long. And they really should have been very clear in stating to the public both what action they took and why they did so.

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Bruno Brito

(Of course, if they got heavy handed with such censorship, they would quickly lose readers and directly harm themselves in the process.)

Yeah. That’s the entire point.