So World of Warcraft has been on a bit of a tear with replacing achievement names, artwork, and so forth recently. At the time I’m writing this, the latest changes are renaming the Twin Consorts to the Twin Empyreans and the Big Love Rocket being renamed to the X-45 Heartbreaker. This has, naturally, prompted a lot of discussion about whether or not this is a good thing, some hopefully well-intentioned but wildly misinformed bright sparks talking about censorship (which this isn’t), and a whole lot of discussion of whether or not this is a good thing or not.
The answer? Yes, it’s a good thing. Also, it’s a totally irrelevant thing that makes no difference whatsoever.
I realize that might sound like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, but in this case it really is an important distinction to make. The ongoing efforts to excise some of the juvenile elements of WoW are pretty decidedly a good thing and something that the game has long needed to take care of. At the same time, these efforts are wholly unrelated to the actual problem that’s provoking the clean-up in the first place, and it’s important not to lose sight of that, either.
Let’s start off by being clear about something: We all know that these changes are a response to the ongoing scandal wrapped around Blizzard’s culture of harassment. This is pretty obvious. Everything that goes into a video game costs money, in terms of time if nothing else, and renaming something means searching for a lot of instances of a text string and changing it, which is not arduous but still somewhat involved. These are changes being aimed specifically at a public image problem, an overt attempt to mollify fans.
That does not, however, mean that these things are just problems now.
It’s hard to be certain what people do and don’t take issue with in the entirety of WoW’s content because, well, there’s a lot of it, there are a lot of present and former players, and the plural of “anecdote” isn’t “data.” We can’t know how many people walked into a random house and saw a picture of a woman wearing a robe with a neckline plunging down to her navel and rolled their eyes, for example. More than zero and less than all is about all we can say with certainty.
But that was still an issue no matter how many people noticed or complained about it. I’ve seen people claiming that no one was complaining about this stuff, but the thing about the permeating nature of male gaze is that a lot of WoW’s juvenalia probably just washed over people without anyone necessarily being all right with it. The game has always had a distinctly low-brow attitude to topics like sex and sexuality, and that has been in the game for a long time. It wasn’t fine before; it isn’t fine now. We are inured to it, trained to ignore it, but that doesn’t make it okay.
Replacing the aforementioned low-cut robe is thus a good thing and helps to make more gamers feel more comfortable in the game. You might not have ever been bothered by some of the things that are being changed; I personally think it’s hard to find much offense in the name “Twin Consorts” and think it’s possibly an oversensitive change. But erring on the side of sensitivity is better than erring on the side of not caring.
And none of this is censorship. This is not a governing entity telling Blizzard that its games cannot have this content in their game; these are voluntary changes being made without any sort of mandates around their presence. In other words, if you dislike the idea of censorship obstructing art, this is actually exactly what you want. Blizzard still has the option to change its art. It is not being censored; the developers are just changing their minds about what is and is not acceptable content.
The limits of your experiences (and mine) are not the limits of the human experience. I’m not about to say that there’s no reason behind these changes, and if the designers want to rename the Twin Consorts to the Twin Empyreans, then your fight with a pair of statues dressed in a bra and loincloth is the Twin Empyreans’ fight now.
You know, because the issue there was the implication of consorts.
I’m being snarky, of course, but I think this hints at one of the two issues at work in this particular case. The first is that the real problem runs deeper than just a few names and some icons or decoration. WoW having the attitude of a teenage boy toward women is not a new or nuanced point of view; it’s been demonstrated over years of the game. And if the developers really want to excise that from the game, it’s going to take a lot of effort beyond just some names and icons and meaningless background paintings.
But you know what’s a bigger deal? A woman is dead. And this is not a response to that. Not in the sense that it isn’t meant to be part of rehabilitating Blizzard’s image, but more that the problem the company has go far deeper than the aforementioned teenage male gaze infecting a lot of design. There’s a sickness at the heart of this studio, and a handful of name changes do not address it.
Herein lies the real problem: It’s not that these changes are bad things in the abstract; it’s that they’re like trying to fix a broken engine in your car by slapping stickers on the hood. You might feel good about how they make the car look, they might be a marked aesthetic improvement, and they might even be something that expresses views that are commendable. But none of them is going to address the underlying problem that your car is broken.
Blizzard’s cultural issues are going to take time to work out. Thus far, it’s still unclear whether the studio is actually going to do what is necessary to navigate its legal battles and mature as a company; as with so many big corporate responses, the general strategy by Activision-Blizzard here seems to be to make a couple of little changes, wait to see if that works, then make a couple more little changes, and so forth. It’s not going very well, either in the court of public opinion or in the court of… uh… court. (You don’t get the SEC breathing down your neck when things are going well.)
But those structural and big-picture changes are the sort of thing that the game and the studio actually need to go through before players should start considering the game’s more egregious problems to actually be rectified. Anything less than that merely seems like an effort to win back goodwill without doing the hard work necessary to actually earn it again.
“Look! We respect women! You can’t say that we don’t! We’ve removed some of our juvenile references; that’s the same as addressing our actual harassment problem, right?”
The answer is no. And that’s why I consider these changes to be a good thing in the abstract and an utterly pointless thing in practice. Am I glad to see these changes? Yes, absolutely. But it was about seventh or eighth on the list of things I wanted to see change about how the game is developed right now, and the higher-ranked and more important ones still haven’t happened.