WoW Factor: Why does this latest Blizzard scandal feel so different?

    
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Actually call it a comeback.

I think anyone who has been a fan of World of Warcraft over the past two decades has been trying to parse out some difficult feelings this past week, and they’re difficult feelings that don’t entirely make sense. If you’re anything like me, you’ve found yourself feeling bad in unfamiliar ways, feeling like you’ve lost something as a direct consequence of what’s been happening within Blizzard – that somehow even fixing the game wouldn’t be enough to make it attractive any more.

And on some level, this feels weird. The past several years have been a steady exercise of watching Blizzard screw things up and manage the game poorly. Earlier this month we were all eagerly clowning on the fact that the game had been managed so poorly that a likely fake leak still read as plausible. Why is it that this, even more than Blizzard’s cowardly treatment of Hong Kong, feels like a break that can’t be repaired?

The answer, while not pleasant, is at least simple. Everything else that’s been going wrong with WoW has felt like something that can be fixed, even if it won’t be. But this lawsuit exposes a problem not with the substance but with the very soul.

What happened with Hong Kong at least felt like the actions of daft corporate executives chasing what amounted to a hypothetical profit margin. It was easier, at least in theory, to write that entire incident off on some level as the result of the type of people who were in charge of Blizzard at that point in time. Sure, you could argue that many of the people involved were old hands (and people did note just that), but there was at least a plausible gap to drive in there about when these things had happened and what it said about modern Blizzard.

This doesn’t say anything about modern Blizzard, though. This makes it clear that the problems there go back well back into the “golden years.” It has nothing to do with Activision or new leadership beyond the fact that leadership continued to let these problems fester for a long while when something could have been done, and nothing was done.

All of this goes right back to the core of what WoW always was. And that is just a little harder to parse and deal with because… well, it means that this isn’t something that can be fixed.

Ominous!

I don’t mean that in the sense that the people who are responsible for the most egregious acts of harassment or inactivity in the face of it can’t be brought to task and removed from their positions; they certainly can, and in many cases already have been. But even after that happens, for a lot of people WoW has become irreversibly tainted. For them, the entire history of this company is now shot through with a stain that’s nearly impossible to parse, and a game that for a lot of people was a safe space is now forever tied with being an unsafe project to work on.

Consider this: Even if patch 9.2 is amazing, would you feel comfortable playing it right now? Or would you feel like something is… off, somehow? Like you shouldn’t be playing or enjoying this, as if you’re doing something wrong by giving this game more of your time and attention? Because that’s certainly where I’m at right now, and it runs a lot deeper than just systems and poor management now.

And it’s why I don’t know if it’s going to be possible to feel comfortable with this ever again.

It certainly doesn’t help that this is coming all at a time when customer trust in Blizzard was already bottoming out badly. Blizzard has been fighting a losing battle for a few years now trying to convince fans that it’s still the company they remember, that the relentless self-promotion and things like “Blizzard quality” are still real concepts rather than things that have steadily fallen by the wayside. This is now compounded by the idea that not only is it a lie now, those values might have always been a lie.

That is… not an easy thing to come back from. When people bought into a myth only to see it be diminished, you can possibly rebuild it. When people bought into a myth only to see it be diminished and then be told that it was always a gigantic lie, though? That’s going to drive your goodwill right back into the ground.

Let me give you an example. I had an actual column written about the things that needed to be done to “fix” WoW and actually address a lot of persistent player complaints before this news came out. At this point, though, it seems almost perfunctory and I’ve thrown it out. Reworking the narrative department at this point feels like an empty and pointless gesture when there’s a sickness that’s taken root deep within the company and has apparently been there since the earliest days of this particular game at a bare minimum.

And this is – again – just covering the people we know about beyond a shadow of a doubt. There are definitely other people and other things going on that we haven’t heard about. What we are seeing is the tip of the iceberg.

Parses were still a thing, even then.

This is a hard thing to deal with for longtime fans. If this game means a lot to you – and it means a lot to me – you have to kind of struggle around the feeling of whether or not you’re ever going to feel all right with this game again. You have to grapple with whether the things you now know about the title are going to make it feel forever tainted, even if you had any hopes that the development team was going to actively pursue a better design or address outstanding issues.

And I do not have the answer for that.

For the time being, I have joined my fellow WoW columnist Justin and unsubscribed from the game. I cannot, in good conscience, talk about the game as if it were all business as usual in the wake of the frankly monstrous behavior that was not just permitted but encouraged for years within the company. I recognize that for some people, this decision isn’t an option, but for me it is, and it’s an option I’m exercising. And I’m not sure what, if anything, can be done to correct this feeling now.

That’s the really hard part. This isn’t actually something that can be fixed by gutting leadership and removing abusers. It’s still going to be hovering there. Yes, it’ll definitely be easier to move on if the company takes this seriously, but that won’t make it go away.

Wounds to the body can heal. Wounds to the soul, though? The sort of damage that this inflicted on the very perception of WoW? That’s harder to do, and it requires not just new leadership and new approaches but a kind of deep and all-consuming love that the game has been systematically beating out of people over the past several years. And I don’t know if there will come another day when anyone can talk about this game with a clean conscience.

I’d like to imagine there will be such a day. But even doing everything right, it feels unlikely… and thus far, Blizzard has most certainly not shown an interest in doing everything right.

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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elenie

Exactly this, once I know a company has gone bad (or has always been) I can’t find joy in playing their games any more, no matter how much it sucks to lose a beloved game that way.
I’m going through this with Star Stable right now (I have credible sources that SSE has gone bad in major, abusive ways – though nothing could come close to what Blizzard has been doing), while for WoW I left and did my “grieving” after Blitzchung. And it was grieving – I’d been playing WoW as one of my main games for over a decade and it’s how I met my life partner.
I also don’t see any way back from this for Blizzard, and their leadership certainly don’t seem to want to change. I’ve worked at a company that was taken over by a dysfunctional and incompetent multinational and I am so glad I was able to leave. There’s no way to reform that sort of “culture” from within, and I doubt that even in Blizz’ case, workplace laws are strong enough to really do anything either.
Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed your WoW articles but I’ll be happier to read about other games from now on :-)

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Wilhelm Arcturus

Blitzchung was just business, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing lawsuit is personal.

The former was pretty much the price of doing business in China, and nothing Blizz could have done one way or another would have prevented the government of China from cracking down on Hong Kong in the end.

The latter is essentially an assault against the people who made the game what it was and there is literally no excuse for it. If you’re in a supervisory position in a company over a set size in the state of California you have to meet an annual training requirement on hostile workplace environments. That has been a thing since before WoW was launched. I have had to take those classes and they aren’t exactly arcane, deeply nuanced, or complicated and everything described in the lawsuit should have been an obvious red flag. Blizzard exec staff and HR knew and just didn’t care.

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Schmidt.Capela

Google has recently started recommending me articles listing alternative games to play if you like WoW, sometimes even presenting me articles that are months or even years old. Given that recommendations are based on what their algorithms and IAs notice people doing, I wonder if this recent trend is a fluke or a sign that people are effectively looking for alternatives in numbers previously unseen.

Turing fail
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Turing fail

Terrorizing, humiliating, sexually assaulting their fellow human beings, and driving someone to take their own life. That’s what’s different.

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Devil_Sword_Dilbert

I completely understand how it would be difficult if not impossible to reconcile with these issues, for people who had an emotional investment in the work of this company, and a personal boycott is the most likely stance to take in this instance.

Despite Blizzard’s earlier work, specifically Warcraft 3, being a big part of my formative years (to the extent of deepening a connection with my father at a time of uncertainty), I have no such attachment to the community, the product, or any brand loyalty. I only first started somewhat “seriously” (endgame) a little the first SL tier, and it is just that to me, a product, and I’ll play it while it’s fun for me. It sucks to know how the sausage is made, but at the same time, I’d never look down on people still using Apple products even though they have suicide nets on their factories because they can’t count the dead. And I certainly wouldn’t stoop to such ridiculous fence sitting as virtual walkouts, while still handing over my money.

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Crafty_Youth5227

Funny how I haven’t played any Blizzard game in years. But I too was around playing MMOs in that first generation. It was to me the best time of the genre because it wasn’t mainstream and only PC geeks played them. But once Wow hit it all changed and minorities and women started to play them. I saw the toxic stuff happening right away. During that first-generation, some minorities and women played back then and didn’t have to deal with what they do today. It never was just the gaming companies it was the you know, male gamers to These guys felt the space belonged to them. Minorities and women weren’t allowed in.

MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

Wherever you set your marker for the collapse, we’ve been fighting the long defeat for a long time — before MMOs were around, even before the September that Never Ended, we had a shared culture and standards. No politics. No non-consentual roleplay and no portrayal of non-consentual sex acts or sexuality of minors. Issues tended to erupt around the time new freshmen joined the Internet, which is why September was always crunch month for civilizing the new netizens.

The gaming communities I grew up with in the 80’s were one of the few places where you’d rub elbows with all the odds and outcasts. The back room of the gaming shop was a safe space for everyone under the rainbow. It was one of the only places I can think of where an excluded person could be free to tell their own stories.

I don’t think it was ever an exclusive or excluding club until outside interests drove us all down that shitty path.

The shitheels at the top aren’t endemic to our group, but invasive parasites.

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CommanderZoom

As someone else who was around back then, I have to tell you: those safe spaces often weren’t as safe as we liked to imagine. Sometimes the people we welcomed in, and then defended against “outsiders”, were terrible and toxic in their own right. The Geek Social Fallacies were and are absolutely a thing.

We can’t, and shouldn’t, easily brush the “shitheels” off as “invasive parasites”. They have always been among us.

Bree Royce
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Bree Royce

“During that first-generation, some minorities and women played back then and didn’t have to deal with what they do today.” I started playing MMOs in 1997 and yes we most certainly did deal with this garbage back then too.

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Narficus

I can tell folks that “minorities” did deal with this garbage as well* since the beginning (as there were PC geeks of other races). Most of us know that there are racists of every race, and so that spoken racism seems tame when you’ve experienced the rest, was why the kids Cut the Dozens so spoken didn’t hurt, and the white dudebros were NOT the most casually racist of the bunch (gotta cross over the pond for that).

Why do I say that? Because of the shit-talking nature of competitive anything, they’re just playing the head game to shake your morale (something female PVPers do with “misogyny” because it is assumed to be from a male instead). This nega-catfishing for a weakness to exploit as an advantage is far from being just from men, as anyone who has seen someone’s jealous ex act can attest to. In many cases where this is complained of, you’re already in a game that involves killing people, so there’s going to be some psychological dehumanization going on as basic part of the process.

The LGBT+ community were around back then, too, with Jessica Mulligan, who also received a lot of shit back then to later write about it.

I get that you’re upset with this culture, but it’s strange that you’re citing history but skip that YES, the entire industry exists because it came from university culture (before the radicalizing propaganda mill era where the kids are taught the US is so bad while they make excuses for China – the market the industry is now chasing after because over there an employee death just means finding a replacement).

*- It’s actually QUITE derogatory in many places of the world to refer to other races as such – it translates BADLY, especially via world pop numbers and basic math, but the translation comes across as “inferior not white”.

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Toy Clown

For someone who’s been playing MMOs since a few months into Ultima Online’s birth, there is a massive timeline to look back on concerning MMOs in general. What WoW did was turn a once-niche industry on its ear and within 10 years had expanded the MMO industry into an acceptable (mostly) household hobby. That is quite an accomplishment if you think about it.

While I didn’t play WoW much or care for it, it still affects me as a 20+ year MMO veteran. This is history in the making once again and I hope that other MMO companies take notice.

There are MMOs being released that I refuse to play, even though they look good because they have no gender diversity among their teams. Why does development in some of these companies only hire women in community service roles? There are a lot of women learning game development, but we rarely see or hear about them.

It’s not just WoW, it’s nearly the entire fucking industry. It’s even the players treating women so poorly that they hide their identities, play male avatars, won’t go on voice, etc.

I want what is happening to Blizzard/Activision to become a powerful message to the entire industry; to create a movement of action toward equality. MMOs are no longer niche and these “people” can’t get away with this anymore.

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Bruno Brito

Personally, the entire affair gives me mixed feelings and puts my entire relationship with companies, with things i like, with people i care about and with how i perceive society in perspective.

My relationship itself with Blizzard was always extremely mixed. Everyone i’ve met who talked about WoW always talked in awe of the first time they stepped in Azeroth. That wasn’t my experience. The word i’ve used before to explain what i felt was “disappointment”.

The first thing i wanted to do in WoW was an Troll Axe Thrower. The game itself didn’t allow for it. Through the years i played WoW, i could accept it was a great game but it had major limitations that didn’t make a lick of sense, lore-wise or design-wise.

WoW was honestly for me a pretty cheap translation of War3 to a MMO. There were no Blademasters, there were no Wardens, the game had almost no racial sets that were iconic in the RTS, but i digress. My point is that WoW always gave me mixed feelings, and as i grew up, i decided to embrace that as something that happens normally inside me. I harshly criticize EVERYTHING i like. I’m an person who’s extremely prone to partial points of view, so i have to keep in mind all the time the merits and flaws of everything so i don’t fall into traps of not realizing that i’m being led by the nose.

The more and more Blizzard showed itself to be detached, the more i started to expect shit like this to show it’s head somewhere down the road. And yet, you hope it never does. Hence, i can’t say i wasn’t shocked. I was. But in the end, i think everyone who looked at this industry for it’s entire life knew to expect it.

What i think right now is basically what Eliot thinks. It’s not for the boycott, nor is it for moral points. It just FEELS really fucking awful to even stare at the game. I get that a lot of people won’t be able to leave, or won’t leave by whim. There are artists who depend on the game to make a living, there are anti-social people whose entire little social lives are in the game. There are addicts. It’s not that simple for us to just judge them based on enlightened despotism from our comfy high horses. Everyone has their own reasons.

At the same time, i have to harshly criticize my own idealism, because there comes a point where reality shows up and you gotta face it: No matter how good these people are, and i know a lot of them, their money will funnel towards Kotick and the defense of people who doesn’t deserve it. Pretty words are just that, pretty. It won’t bring anyone back, and it won’t keep anyone employed. That’s exactly why there is a lawsuit going on now: because consequences are required for change to appear and for results to chain off.

I don’t really judge anyone for wanting to protest in-game, even thought i do think it’s a bit of wishful thinking. I don’t judge the people who want to play it still. I don’t really think anyone is good or bad only from these criteria, which are also personal. To each, their own.

All that being said, i can’t. I really can’t. I won’t. The more i think about it, the less i agree with the concept that it was all about “sex, drugs and the rockstar life”. You can have sex with willing people. You can do drugs outside of the work-hours. You can be a rockstar-prick in your well paid senior Blizzard job and still not harass anyone. It wasn’t about any of that, because you can ABSOLUTELY be a complete pervert taste-wise, and still not be a unmitigated boil upon humanity.

It was about control, it was about stepping on people and showing off that they could do that. Blizzard was their playground and no one would be able to get in the way of their “fun”. I can’t for the life of me understand how some impervious fuck feels anything but complete self-hatred when someone who’s weaker than him looks at him with a mix of fear and loathing. It had to be about control and about liking to be predators, because you either enjoy that shit thoroughly or you absolutely fucking despise it.

And that’s what the entire legacy represents to me now. The moment i think about Azeroth, i think about how the person who created that wasn’t just a detached sociopath, but someone who actively harassed people and ENJOYED it. The second i think about how much fun i was having with my F2P Dwarf Shaman, i also think about how fucking disgusting it is to even consider playing it again. It feels terrible, it’s something i want dead inside of me.

Can Blizzard be fixed? Sure. Like, their legacy will never recover, but they could absolutely build a new one, with new and better people.

WILL Blizzard be fixed? No. Reality is that Kotick doesn’t care. The leadership who apologized only did so because it blew up. This shit wouldn’t ever be out in the open if Blizzard kept being the dream place to be, and we would have a LOT of more Blizzcons with “boys being boys” and anything like this would take a way lot more effort and time to come out.

In a way, i have to thank Kotick for allowing Blizzard to keep it’s decline, because it’s thanks to that, that now we know what they were all along.

I won’t judge anyone for taking their own decision. But on my part, my Blizzard journey is over. I don’t care for my childhood and memories. Those are cheap. Lives aren’t. I would absolutely trade the entire time i wasted on their games, if it brought the person who wanted the pain to stop, back. I know it sounds personal, but i’m sure i’m not the only one here who also struggled with suicide and knowing someone could have the help and didn’t have is soul-crushing. She would have all of our backs today, and they robbed her of that, and robbed her from us.

From me, no pitying. No forgetting. No forgiving. Burn them. Crush them. Destroy them.

Fuck’em. All the way to hell.

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Bryan Correll

The difference, imo, is that prior scandals were, at their roots, over issues of finance. Blitzchung’s treatment was because they didn’t want to risk missing out on that sweet Chinese market. Kotick’s pay issue was, well, just a pay issue (a whole lot of pay, but still just pay.) Layoffs are unpleasant but are a standard business practice.

But not this time. This time it isn’t about money at all. This is about people with power in the company being truly loathsome individuals or, at best, ignoring the loathsome behavior of their associates. And not just unpleasant behavior, the kind of behavior that will put you behind bars if a prosecutor can convince a jury that it happened.

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cursedseishi

It’s seeing how the hotdog is made.

The Blitzchung/Hong-Kong incident was people yelling about what goes into a hotdog, but this event is equivalent to seeing them made in person–as well as finding out all the animals you love and wouldn’t want to eat had their useless bits minced up and stuffed in a flesh-sleeve and sold in packs. I.E. Hot Dogs.

I’m still of the opinion that boycotting won’t do as great a harm as some people think–but that’s solely because the way the industry works has made me extremely cynical towards what will affect real change. WoW has been on a downward trend, sure, and this might push that further… But I can’t shake the feeling that it won’t really ruffle things. Acti-Blizz has long since focused on MAUs, and I believe its the total of all games, not individual to each. Whatever loss in one could be buoyed by other titles gaining steam. And Activision themselves are a massive publisher with a Call of Duty game rumored still to be coming out sometime this year.

And that belief is just buoyed by the performative fixes we’ve seen. Kotick’s letter was penned by Damage Control, the ‘lawfirm’ they are working with is the exact opposite of what you’d want handling this–but they won’t tell you that. And promises of ‘hiring’ do not mean change. Ubisoft went through something similar, though somewhat lesser in scope, and that has hardly done much to affect change even as their studios suffer from the repercussions of it.

World of Warcraft is still gonna be the beaten stepchild, not given the resources and actual talent it needs to make meaningful changes to the game (that level squish was probably the last and only major shake-up we’ll see for it. I’d be surprised if they don’t just… skip 9.2, or shove something half-baked out as it alongside the announcement of the next expansion where we spend the next chunk of levels doing nothing but thanking Sylvanas Windrunner for her service and apologizing for all the suffering she endured to save us in the end.
And Hearthstone and Overwatch will continue to receive focus because they are the ones driving recurrent spending.

But hey! If Justin and Eliot are quitting WoW coverage? That just means more time for the My Little Pony Online articles, and some side attention to the MOLPA side-game contender– My Online Little Pony Arena.