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

    
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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.

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Zero_1_Zerum

I second the motion that “actions speak louder than words”. They can say they’re sorry all they want, but they’ve yet to prove it. Blitzchung is still suspended, even if it’s shorter. A true apology would have actions that fit the words, a change of behavior after realizing they were wrong. They haven’t done that. The apology was BS.

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Crowe

I’m “not boycotting because boycotts are dumb.” Well, I don’t see how boycotting Blizzard affects the situation in Hong Kong so I’ll have to go with that after all. I don’t think this requires any work on myself though.

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Rodrigo Dias Costa

I do agree with this conclusion and personally I fall on the “things get broken” category. I just can’t feel like I’ll get any enjoyment playing any of their games from now on.

Their games changed? Of course not, they’re the same. What changed was me wanting to play them, that feeling of anticipation, of hype. I wanted so much the WC3R before, but now this is gone for good.

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IronSalamander8 .

A bit late to this one, but I see a link to the Far Side (awesome and appropriate), and I see some great points here I full concur with (especially Armsbend).

It’s very easy for me to claim I’m boycotting Blizzard so I normally don’t bother with that term. I did feel this Hong Kong issue was the last straw for me with them anyway, but they’ve been overrated to an extreme degree for years and I the only game of theirs I had left on my HDD was WoW so removing it and battle net wasn’t exactly a hard choice. It’s a de facto boycott more than anything else in my case. That being said, I appreciate those that are genuinely boycotting for causes like this.

The apology could have worked if he had handled it better but it’s a complete mess due to all this being taken together. It was handled badly and them releasing footage of games that are 2+ years off to appease the masses was so blatant it’s almost laughable.

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Triona Falconer

I’m not a Blizzard fan (not because of any malice towards them prior to this debacle, I just never got into any of their games), so it may be easier for me to say this than others but at this point…

“Actions speak louder than words”.

Eliot you have valid points, but when it comes down to the cranberries, what matters is what they do over the long haul. This will reflect their true intentions.

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rafael12104

Just got home from work and it is saving you guys a wall of super text. I’m too tired to dive into the saga once again. Heh.

But, Eliot you were so close but missed the entire target, unfortunately.

For me, it all comes down to the apology. It’s not that they didn’t do this, that and the other thing for Blitz. No. It is the sheer audacity of apologizing by claiming their purpose is to bring people together, and that everyone has a right to express themselves.

Their purpose is to form communities of gamers? Bullshit. Bullshit! Their purpose is to make money and add shareholder value. There isn’t anything wrong with that all things being equal, but their stated purpose is a transparent lie.

Blizz believes in the right to express oneself? WTF? Heh. That is incomplete. They believe in that right unless it affects their bottom line. Do you know what else affects their bottom line? China. Oh, and they believe in China, don’t they.

So old JAB almost pulled it off. He said he was sorry and it seemed heartfelt. But his own words betrayed him, and that makes the whole event trash because it is built on lies. It would have been infinitely better if he apologized for Blizz and left all of the other bullshit out.

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Oleg Chebeneev

Id prefer if he showed middle finger to whoever boycotts and moved to announcements without much delay.

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Nathan Aldana

wow, someone’s a badass.

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Bruno Brito

It’s ok, we’ll save Oleg one day.

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Bruno Brito

This is why you’re not a CEO of a successful company, and instead, their sheep.

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Utakata

Yeah…that really worked well for Jay Wilson too, lol.

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Bruno Brito

He took the outrage and doubled it.

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Mikka Hansen

newsflash: whoever told you that feigning being a contrarian was a good replacement for having a personality of your own was lying. your still sad and empty

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styopa

Let’s not forget that protests are nothing more than PR “stunts” themselves.

I care neither for corporate apologies nor the righteously angry people protesting on behalf of someone else.

BOTH are posers, saying what they think you need to hear.

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Armsbend

So. Many. Holes.

PR stunt – except one is motivated by profit;l the other is motivated by awareness.

“Protesting on behalf of someone else” – Blitzchung is from Hong Kong – therefore it wasn’t someone else. Is the only form of protest firebombing a hospital? Or are their other forms? PR as you call it.

Obviously many people did in fact care about what blitz had to say – so it was mission accomplished.

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Bruno Brito

I didn’t expect this incredibly uplifting posture from you.

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Armsbend

I always err on the side of the revolutionary.

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styopa

Yes, they have different motivations, but they’re both PR stunts. Some might say that one is valid and the other isn’t. It doesn’t change that they are BOTH manufactured events designed to manipulate the viewer’s feelings.

And yes, “protesting on behalf of someone else” – are you saying Blitzchung was protesting at Blizzcon? I don’t think he was. He was the only one actually aggrieved; everyone else protesting is vicarious.

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Bruno Brito

It doesn’t change that they are BOTH manufactured events designed to manipulate the viewer’s feelings.

Yeah, and taxes are legalized theft.

What is your point?

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Nathan Aldana

remember guys.

“The Jungle” was just a PR stunt

Ditto the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s suffrage, the early 1900’s strikes by unions, or the Vietnam War protests.

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rosieposie

I know, what a bunch of self-entitled posers!

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Bruno Brito

Yes, we get it, nothing has meaning, nihilism.

It’s amazing when i get to hear/read someone be so sure about something they’re also so wrong.

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styopa

LOL, failing to be ‘triggered’ by whatever happens to be the outrage du jour: “nihilist”. Sure.
Failing to give a crap about corporate feelz carefully focus-grouped to maximize the next purchase cycle = “nihilist”. Sure.

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Bruno Brito

Apathy is the father of nihilism. You’re apathic.

Don’t disguise it.

You’re also wrong, if i didn’t make myself clear on that yet.

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Utakata

That’s not how it really works though. Nice troll though? o.O

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Armsbend

Btw, everyone – this flurry of Blizzard news? It slows to crawl on November 8th – the day after their next Earnings Call. None of this has to do with you – the players. They give two shits for any of you. In fact, they hate your miserable guts – as has been proven time and again since 2015.

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styopa

I don’t think they “hate” their customers.
They’re probably quite fond of them, like a dairy farmer feels about his cattle.

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Armsbend

A decent point – except cattle usually don’t get mad and make fun of the rancher on reddit. To my knowledge at least.

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johnwillo

The ranchers have ways of discovering trouble-makers.

comment image

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Armsbend

lmao. I used to love that cartoon.

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Bruno Brito

I fucking love you.

Sixuality
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Sixuality

As one of those who was unimpressed with the sincerity of Brack’s apology I’ll freely admit that I didn’t parse his words sufficiently to recognise Blizzard’s purpose. I didn’t realise that…

We aspire to bring the world together in epic entertainment

…and if I had my response wouldn’t have been “I thought it was weak”, it would have been “oh f*** off, Blizzard.”

Just a couple of hours ago I wrote that I believe the Overwatch devs genuinely do want to do some good with their – often clumsy – commitment to representation and diversity… and I’m sure they do, but at a corporate level the only reason a business like Acctivision-Blizzard want to bring the world together is that so that they can sell their shit to everyone, regardless of race, color, sexuality or creed.

But if they truly believe that their purpose is to bring the world together… if they truly believe in the positive power of video games… then that only makes their handling of this incident an even bigger failure on their part.

It will never be easy to balance progressive values with the realities of a global market, but the speed, and totality, with which those values were tossed aside when it came to it speaks volumes about what really matters to Blizzard.

It’s done now. There’s pretty much no way for Blizzard to walk this back any further now. What matters now is what they do the next time they have to deal with something like this. That will be what really shows if they’ve learned anything from this.

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styopa

That’s one reason I have no sympathy for Blizzard in this fight, not really.

They bent over backwards to serve buzzword issues and virtue-signal their “commitment” to “diversity” and “progressive values” with Overwatch and what has it gotten them?

Just a bunch of customers that are more easily triggered.

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Nathan Aldana

bent over backwards how?

they made a couple characters gay but only in outside material and resolved the tracers butt issue by making it still sexualized.