WoW Factor: The ethics of playing on private World of Warcraft servers right now

Through the fire and the flames

There’s a problem to be found when it comes to World of Warcraft, and that problem is Blizzard Entertainment. That is a known fact at this point. You either don’t need me to reiterate the problems with the studio at this point or you’re willfully ignoring those problems, and in either case re-linking the articles you have probably already read about this is probably not necessary. (We’re going to do it anyhow, though, just so we’re all on the same page.) But for some people… well, the urge to play WoW is still there.

This has resulted in an interesting question that I’ve gotten asked on more than a few occasions now: In the wake of everything happening at Blizzard, is it ethical to play on a private server at this point? Is it a morally defensible action? Is it the right way to play WoW, or is it still a bad thing? And… well, that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

First and foremost, let’s establish something right out of the gate: Regardless of the hypothetical ethics, it is still against the terms of service. These servers are not permitted under the terms of service, and they can be shut down and stopped at any time. You might argue that Blizzard doesn’t really want the bad press it might entail at this point, but I’m willing to bet that no one there particularly cares.

More to the point, none of this is changing what has been our longstanding policy at Massively Overpowered. When it comes to rogue servers for shut down games, we’ll cover them; rogue servers for currently operating games are a no-no. We are not advocating that anyone rush out and start violating terms of agreement and risking their accounts or worse. This is not a repository to talk about rogue servers but a hypothetical discussion of whether or not the ethics of this particular situation have changed.

Everyone clear on that? Probably not, but let’s forge ahead anyhow.

Oh, so they get to just fly under their own power, that's fair.

First and foremost, the question has to be raised about whether or not withholding support from Blizzard is ethical. Thankfully, that’s a pretty easy question to answer because it’s a straightforward yes. I know that some people have tried to argue that what you’re doing there is hurting the lower-tier workers rather than the corporate side of things, but I don’t think that argument holds up.

Why? Well, for one thing, that’s basically arguing that if you’re disgusted by Blizzard’s actions (as you should be), the proper thing to do is to not in any way alter your habits or stop supporting the company financially. That rings false right out of the gate. Second, it also presupposes that the company will change not as a result of falling profits or users but out of sheer goodness, which is almost prima facie ridiculous. And third, the idea that you’re hurting the workers by failing to support the company is acting as if Blizzard hasn’t already spent the last several years laying people off en masse when profits were up.

Spoilers: The company has absolutely done that multiple times, to the point that we were dragging it for that before all of the hideous abuse allegations came out. Without going too deep into the arguments necessary here, I’m not making an argument against voting with your wallet but for Blizzard employees unionizing to protect themselves, and that has nothing to do with the ethics of no longer paying for the company’s products.

So we’ve established that yes, it is morally justified and reasonable to stop paying Blizzard money. But that is not the same thing as discussing whether or not it’s ethical to essentially take the company’s work and play it for free, and that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about rogue servers.

No, the argument doesn’t change if you pay money to support the server development. Sit down.

Here’s the thing: This is not the first time that it’s been ethical to say that you don’t want to give money to Blizzard. That’s a settled matter. But in order to make playing on a rogue server to be a justifiable action, you have to do two things. The first is prove how this is orders of magnitude worse than prior incidents; the second is provide a justification for why this previously unethical action is now a correct one.

Fortunately for those who do want to go down this road, the former is pretty easy. A woman is dead, and you can draw a direct line between the callousness of Blizzard leadership and her death. That’s… more than enough! It’s really enough at that point to say that this is far worse than any of the other ways that the studio has screwed things up over the past few years.

But justifying a rogue server? Well, that runs into a problem because WoW is not something you require to sustain your life or are forever entitled to. As with any other form of ongoing entertainment, it is possible that you will no longer want to enjoy it for various reasons, but this does not inherently entitle you to continue having access to it, nor does it mean that something is going wrong when you are no longer interested in what the game has become.

However, I do think there’s an ethical justification here. Because the point being made is not that you are somehow entitled to WoW… it’s more that the difference between your play and lack thereof is influenced first and foremost by the studio and the mechanics of the game.

Oh dear.

We’re never going to know exactly how much rogue servers influenced the eventual decision to make WoW Classic an actual product that you could pay Blizzard money for, in no small part because even if the answer was “a lot,” there’s a distinct motivation not to say that. But it seems clear that there was some influence there no matter what. People wanted to play that classic version of the game for various reasons, to the point that Blizzard even left the option in place after turning on the next expansion.

Blizzard, as a corporate entity right now, wants to have two things happen. The first is for everyone to stop thinking about the fact that the company is being sued from multiple angles for grotesque behavior that upper leadership shielded for ages. The second, though, is for people to come back to WoW in numbers that they haven’t come back in a long time.

And to a certain extent, playing on servers that are still running some version of the game can be used to send that message. The audience is there. The interest is there. The two things that are stopping it from coming back en masse have more to do with how the game is being run and the corporate culture rather than being some deep philosophical split with WoW.

So is it ethical? Well… the short answer is kind of a “maybe,” which I admit is a wishy-washy way of putting things. It’s definitely not something that I, personally, would recommend that you do. It’s probably not a great idea. But the argument can be made that there is an ethical justification for it, and there’s definitely a justification for not wanting to give Blizzard your money any more – even if you’re not willing to go the rogue server route.

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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