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

Do you really want to hurt me?

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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