Vague Patch Notes: Ethics, PR stunts, and the BlizzCon apology

Oh my.

Are you all really tired of talking about ethics and Blizzard in the same sentence? I am too, but a large part of that is because I really thought I’d said the last word that there was to be said on the matter. I definitely did not expect J. Allen Brack to get on stage at BlizzCon and offer what sounded like a heartfelt and at times nearly tearful apology to the players, including that coveted phrase “I’m sorry” in there along with a lot of other talk.

That’s not snarky. I really didn’t expect that much of an admission of guilt from Blizzard, and it was definitely an admission of guilt. So today… yeah, let’s pick apart the statement, let’s examine the ethics in wake of both Brack’s apology and the subsequent interview in which he stated that the company isn’t reversing the penalties further (what, were we not supposed to pay attention to that part), and let’s take one last glance at the state of play along the way.

Boy, there's just a level of smarm on display...

Yes, that was a real apology

First and foremost, let me lay out a general principle of mine for reasons that will become clear in a moment: When it comes to holding people to account for things, I think your first duty is to make sure you’re holding them to account for genuine reasons. If you’re going to be mad about something, you should be mad about what someone actually does or says, not inference or statements taken out of context.

To that, I point to what I see as the crux of Brack’s apology, these lines right here:

The first one is we didn’t live up to the high standards that we really set for ourselves, and the second is we failed in our purpose. And for that, I am sorry, and I accept accountability. So what exactly is our purpose? BlizzCon is demonstrating it even as we speak. We aspire to bring the world together in epic entertainment, and I truly believe in the positive power of video games.

That’s an apology. Some people are getting hung up on the fact that what he apologizes for based on word order is functionally “we acted too quickly and we failed in our purpose,” but he immediately goes on to define “our purpose” as “bring the world together.” It doesn’t mention Blitzchung or Hong Kong specifically, no, but it is genuinely referencing actions Blizzard took and taking responsibility for same.

So, yes, that’s a real apology. It counts as a real apology for what was actually done, not a matter of dodging responsibility. Actual contrition and regret was shown on stage, and while I didn’t expect it, I cannot say legitimately that Blizzard didn’t apologize. This is an apology, and it’s genuine.

All good, right?

Oh dear.

Yes, this was definitely a PR stunt

Nothing is ever that simple.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Brack getting up on stage with this apology before the convention started wasn’t accidental. I would go so far as to say that this was as genuine as it was in part because it then prefaced the entire convention and didn’t give anyone time to think things over, pick over wording, or really do much more than have a momentary emotional reaction. If he’d offered a video to this effect right after the decision was partly reversed at the start of October, there would be time to debate; there was none this way.

Heck, I’m willing to bet a good chunk of the reason that even the World of Warcraft Q&A – the part everyone expected to be heavily disrupted – went so smoothly is because Brack doused player passions ahead of time. It’s hard to react to that in the moment. It was a surprisingly genuine move, and that puts protesters off-guard. (Yes, there was disruption there, but it was over pretty quickly and it didn’t escalate.)

And there’s a reason things were done this way, just as there was a reason I stacked up the headers this way, because it is possible for both of these things to be true. It’s possible for a heartfelt apology to also be used as a marketing and PR stunt. I have no doubt that Brack wanted to say what he said; I also have no doubt that in addition to genuine guilt and contrition, he wanted to soothe feelings and make BlizzCon not be a disaster. Both can be valid at the same time.

One does not inherently diminish the other. Brack’s desire to mollify protesters does not mean he didn’t also want to offer an apology. Human beings are complicated, companies are complicated, and while you can definitely argue that Brack hasn’t been doing a great job of managing all of this (a sentiment I agree with), that doesn’t mean he’s lying or he didn’t mean it when he apologized.

The follow-up interview linked above should also make it clear that this is also the limit of what Blizzard is doing in terms of apologizing and rescinding anything, and for some people it’s basically going to invalidate any authenticity within the apology. Because the interview is, yes, back to PR speak and honestly a bit more deflective. Does that make the apology not real? No. Does it mean that you have to take this into account when determining just how sorry the company is? Oh yeah.

“Wait, so are Blizzard still bad guys?” you ask. “Or can I like them again? Who’s the good guy in this scenario?” And to that I say…

Everyone wants to feel like a hero. Sometimes there's not a hero moment.

Yes, ethics are still really complicated

At the end of the day, my conclusion from the last column about this hasn’t changed much. You have every right to say that you no longer wish to have anything to do with Blizzard; that no longer has anything to do with getting more apologies out of them or more concessions, but if the alternative weighs on your conscience, then say goodbye. You also have every right to keep doing business with them or feel sufficiently assuaged by the apology and reversal.

If anything, the biggest thing this changes is any lingering hopes about boycotting more concessions out of the studio. This was already more than I expected, and lest you forget, I went into this at a pretty high level of cynicism to begin with. Stunt-like or no, a real apology seemed like something that wasn’t going to happen, and yet here we are.

But it’s probably not going to make you feel better even though it was a real apology. Heck, I don’t think the follow-up interview did Brack any favors despite that; a smarter move would have been to stay mum, but here we are. And the refrain, again and again, is thinking that Blizzard was better than this. This speaks to the real issue underlying all of these ethics, believing in the idea that Blizzard was a more inclusive or supportive or kinder place than others.

In some ways, sure, it is. In some ways, it never has been. There was never a realistic scenario in which Blizzard suddenly told China to go to hell, especially when Blizzard was the one who set itself up as anti-Hong Kong to begin with. Blizzard is a company. It does company things. The leaders have values they believe in, most of which pertain to a general California air of progressiveness but which get undercut when they realize that something might cause trouble overseas.

Does that mean that the leadership doesn’t believe in this stuff? No, it just means that they’ve gotten used to the corporate side of self-editing that we all practice a minor form of in our day-to-day life. Not all viewpoints get expressed at the same volume at all times. That’s neither meant to ameliorate nor crucify the studio; it’s value-neutral.

If you’re one of the people sitting on the sideline and wanting to play Blizzard games again but fretting over whether or not it makes you a bad person? I think you’re already doing the hard work you need to be. Go ahead and play Overwatch or Hearthstone or World of Warcraft if that’s your jam. Not in the sense of “if you can sleep at night,” but in the sense that yes, the boycott did as much as it could do. Good on you.

If you’re still boycotting Blizzard? Hey, that’s valid too. But if you’re claiming to do so because you support Hong Kong, then it’s time to start putting your money and time where your mouth is. Start donating and supporting the protests in other ways. That boycott got a major company to back down and publicly apologize, and that’s a good thing, but we have now passed the point when “not giving this company money” counts as support. That fight got won.

And if you just don’t really want to deal with Blizzard any more? That’s also completely valid. I totally understand people not boycotting but having such a feeling of disappointment and disgust that they no longer want to go back. Sometimes things get broken and can’t be fixed any more.

Last but not least, if you’re still in the “never boycotting because boycotts are dumb and don’t work and it shouldn’t matter anyway” club, well… maybe you should do some work on yourself. Just a thought.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
Previous articleDiablo IV’s developers are hoping to get crossplay working for the upcoming Blizzard title
Next articleElder Scrolls Online’s Dragonhold DLC is now out on Xbox One and PS4

No posts to display

oldest most liked
Inline Feedback
View all comments