Monday, November 4, 2019

I Still Have Faith That What Was Mine Can Still Be Mine

I was in two minds whether to say anything here about the J. Allan Brack Official Blizzard Apology but given that I've already posted two lengthy comments (at Hardcore Casual and TAGN, linked below, towards the end) I guess I might as well. I'll probably regret it but there we go...

Throughout all the hullabaloo of the past few weeks I've found it relatively hard to become as incensed as I somehow feel I should be. Reading some of the post-apology analysis, some of it heartfelt, some of it clinical, I think I've worked out at least part of the reason why.

It's not because I can't or don't empathize with the substantive issues so much as it's that I have no emotional connection to Blizzard as a company and never have had. It's hard to feel personally betrayed by an entity whose previous actions and supposed principles you barely registered in the first place. Until the recent events I had no idea Blizzard was even supposed to have the corporate standards JAB was apologizing for not upholding. If I'd thought about it at all, which I hadn't, I'd just have figured they were a faceless, amoral corporation like any other.

Then there's also the geographical element. In the part of the world where I live, while China may be seen as a threat by some, it pales into insignificance compared to the threat supposedly represented by Russia, something our media have been driving home for years, now. And not without good reason. After all, it's not Chinese state-sponsored agents contaminating the streets of a city less than fifty miles from where I live with Polonium or the Chinese navy cruising silently beneath the sea just a hundred miles away.

Indeed, I don't think it would be much of an exaggeration to suggest that in the country where I live the agenda of Silicon Valley and its megatech giants is widely seen as a more immediate concern than the political machinations of China. Just today I received and put on the shelves of the bookshop where I work no fewer than three new books warning about the dangers of American Big Tech. It's a whole publishing sub-genre, as are books on the Russian threat. Books on the imminent global dangers posed by China are a lot less commercially successful in this particular market.

I realize that it's entirely possible and even necessary to be concerned about multiple threats at the same time but we all have only so much capacity for outrage. Moreover, I suspect that to experience the level of personal discomfort expressed by many bloggers I read have over the Blitzchung incident you would need to feel a level of betrayal that I can't easily imagine ever feeling over the actions of any commercial entity. I've always assumed all of them would do anything they could get away with if it meant an extra dollar.

If the whole affair leaves one lasting lesson I hope it's the mantra I increasingly find myself repeating: "big companies are not our friends". They really, really aren't. And if it wakes a few gamers up to the fact that gaming companies aren't quasi-sentient entities with whom it's appropriate - or even feasible - to share life experiences and develop personal relationships, that will be something, at least.

Rather than bang on about it any more I'll just pull some quotes from a few of the thoughtful and considered responses I've read. I reccommend reading the whole posts from which these paragraphs have been extracted to get a broader picture of the range of responses to that apology.
"I think that it was a… decent apology. Probably not sincere, probably extracted through gritted teeth. But at the very least, it was an indication that Blizzard took a serious hit over this and couldn’t afford to be so arrogant in the face of fan pushback. It will influence the decisions that the studio makes along these lines in the future." Bio Break
"Blizzard President J. Allen Brack... said a lot of words that sounded pretty close to apologizing without actually ever apologizing. It was effectively the corporate version of reflexively saying you are sorry when you don’t quite know what you just did. A real apology includes three components. First admitting that you realize what you did and being able to explain it. Second giving a heartfelt apology that relays an understanding of the harm that was caused. Third an explanation of how you are going to make the changes necessary to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The statement did none of the above..." Tales of the Aggronaut
"J. Allen Brack did open the convention with an apology for their screw-up regarding Hong Kong, and to be fair, he sounded pretty sincere. But waiting until now undermines that sincerity, and so far that apology is not backed up by any action." Superior Realities
"Blizzard, and more importantly, J Allen Brack, have publicly apologized for incorrectly handling the Hong Kong / Blitzchung situation. If we are being 100% honest, this is about as much as Blizzard could have done at the very opening of Blizzcon. To lead off your biggest event with an apology is a big deal." Hardcore Casual
 "You have to parse things carefully to figure out what he was sorry for, and even then it is pretty opaque.... For the most part I liked that Brack got up first thing and spoke about this issue, rather than ignoring it or downplaying it or waiting until after 5pm on a Friday to post it to their site.  And the apology had some good aspects... But the promise to do better didn’t leave me all that reassured as I am still not clear as to how that translates into action going forward." The Ancient Gaming Noob
And finally, a couple of quotes from my own commentary:
"I... think that what Blizzard have done is manage the situation reasonably smartly so as to leave the impression that they’ve changed when in fact they haven’t moved an inch... They are carving out a tricky path going forward, though. It’s all very well keeping your promises vague so you can’t be held to them but that way you risk people trying to hold you to things you never meant to suggest in the first place." Comment at TAGN
"Blizzard knew they had a lockerful of bright, shiny new toys to hand out – but they couldn’t let anyone know that until the Con itself. Hence the lack of pushback in the weeks leading up to Blizzcon – they knew they would be able to dazzle most of their fans and customers with the gleam of the new toys. The apology, particularly the careful use of the trigger word “sorry” (in a heavily nuanced context), seals the deal without actually reversing or countermanding any of the previous actions." Comment at Hardcore Casual

Despite Blizzard's attempt to put a lid on this, I suspect there will be more to come at some point. Having asked that we judge them by their actions there almost has to be.


  1. It has been an interesting weekend for reactions to the apology. The MOP editorial line seems to have remained anti-Blizzard, and the comment threads there are still bristling with torches and pitchforks. Though, as I noted previously, the most vocal in those threads were also not playing any Blizz games by their own admission, so not exactly a meaningful boycott demographic.

    I was surprised that a few people came around after the apology. I suspect the initial emotion of the whole thing faded for some. It is hard to stay mad about something like that for too long. But I still see people in various comment threads loudly declaring that they have to boycott Blizz in order to free Hong Kong, as though the two bore any relation in reality.

    Over here China is viewed as much more of an economic threat than a militaristic one in the way Russia is. Russia remains in decline and seeks to bolster its power on the world stage through military adventurism and nuclear weapons. But I could go for years without buying something that was made in Russia, while everything on my desk at work was likely made in China, right down to the mug for my tea. So there is very much a "stealing our jobs" and "omg our balance of trade" vibe to our relations. That China wants to own the entire South China Sea has just made the countries in the area realize that while they don't always like the US, China will treat them much worse.

    As for the great threat of Silicon Valley, certainly the editorial coverage over here is often about how the EU is trying to impose a Google tax or a Facebook tax in order to compensate for how poorly the EU has done with tech relative to the US. It can be amusing to watch. The EU is again thinking about forcing Google to pay for the privilege of linking to newspaper news sites in the EU. It always turns out the same way. This was tried in Spain and Germany before, and Google just says, "Whatever, we'll just stop linking to those sites completely" and their web traffic falls off a cliff and suddenly the sites that were clamoring for the law are now clamoring for its repeal.

    1. The technofear is beginning to go a lot further than just the economic issues over here - it's more along the lines of those companies having a calculated and organized agenda to subvert democracy across the globe and institute seismic cutrural shifts that will normalize the kind of police state surveillance behaviors previously associated with totalitarianism. It's curious how similar the imagined futures are pictured, should either China or Silicon Valley have their way. One of the books I was looking at today ties the whole thing in with a decades-long plan by the U.S. Military establishment, at least according to the blurb on the back cover.

      My take on the apology and the general Blitzchung/Hong Kong situation is that most likely only a relatively small proportion of Blizzard's customers paid any attention in the first place and of that subset the majority would lose interest pretty quickly. There will be some people who are deeply and genuinely upset and/or disgusted by what Blizzard did and others who would be happy to jump on any chance to distance themselves from the company for any number of reasons. Those people will carry on boycotting and protesting but I doubt they'll be statistically significant.

      The really serious problem I see for Blizzard, though, is that for an indefinite period they won't be able to afford any breaches of their corporate values. The apology was a safe move - the vague, open-ended promise to "do better" is a real hostage to fortune.

    2. Just once I would like to work at one of those companies that can carry off a huge, years long conspiracies to complete market domination. Every company I have worked for... and any company friends of mine have worked for, including Google and Facebook... has fallen into success by accident and spends most of their time trying to defend their one good play while unsuccessfully trying to diversify. It is almost as though these super together predator companies don't exist.

      There is very much a "break them up" vibe in Washington right now around Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple. But much of it seems to be from politicians who feel they cannot compete in that arena or who get large campaign contributions from competing industries. For me it falls into the very large bin of people who support free speech only when they agree fully with what is being said.

  2. I don't really have a horse in this race, but taken as a group (which of course is pretty meaningless in itself) what I'm hearing on Twitter is:

    Pre-Blizzcon: Blizzard let us down, we're uninstalling WoW and the Bliz launcher and we are BOYCOTTING!!!

    Day 1 of Blizzcon: OOOOOOH! Diable 4 WUT!? I can't wait to play this!

    So as is typical of gamers, the outrage only lasts until the next shiny trinket is waved around.

    1. Cynic that I am, I would have been astonished if the line had held for more than a few weeks. Giving up things you like is hard. No surprise that some of the loudest voices come from people who weren't playing the games or buying the products anyway.

    2. Also, to be fair, it's simply the loudest voices that get noticed at any given point in time. I'm sure a lot of Blizzard fans were simply indifferent/stayed quiet about the China thing, but now that BlizzCon has given them a lot to talk about it's probably drowning out a lot of other things with sheer volume.

    3. Shintar said "to be fair, it's simply the loudest voices that get noticed at any given point in time" and y'know, I KNOW that but that fact keeps hiding in a back corner of my brain, so it's good for me to be reminded of it fairly often.

      Very good point, indeed.

  3. I'm with you on the topic of: Corporates (even gaming ones) not being our friends. I guess since gaming -- particularly MMOs -- are such a high-engagement product category it can be easy to forget this from time to time.

    I was not necessarily happy with the action Blizzard took, and ended up talking about it and the difference I felt between their action and the Israel Folau case. But even with that said there was no feeling of being personally betrayed.

    I'm very much with the idea of freeing Hong Kong (or at the very least, maintaining their protected rights under the handover agreement) but it is so far removed from my personal experience over here in NZ that it's difficult to emotively engage with.

    It's very interesting to hear too, the EU perspective on China, Russia and even the US.

    Over here in NZ it's China and Russia are both bad, but in a very nebulous and far-away means. Russia probably gets more media attention but less on a militaristic front and more the never-ending saga of interference in the US elections.

    As for the US itself, it has become a bit of a laughing stock under the Trump administration. There is no (widespread) fear of the US tech sector taking over beyond the occasional reminder that Facebook and Google is here for all your data.

    1. The technofear that's been building for a few years now isn't so much about the economic advantage as about a belief that there's a core intention among a group of powerful tech barons to effect existential change across the world on the level of Mao's cultural revolution. It goes along with the increasing hype around The Rise of the Robots and the imminent threat to humanity posed by Artificial Intelligence.

      If I was shelving these books in the Alt. Mythology/Conspiracy Theory section alongside David Icke's lizard overlord revelations I wouldn't be mentioning it but the slew of titles that are coming out of any number of publishers right now go straight next to the big name Pop Science and History titles. This is threatening to become mainstream thinking among Britain's literate classes and it's starting to percolate out into the wider media, albeit slowly.

      New Zealand is always an interesting case when it comes to global events. I never forget reading John Wyndam's The Chrysalids when I was a young teenager. To spoil the plot pretty much completely, the book ends with the revalation that, while the rest of the world has suffered a catastrophic reversal to quasi-medieaval levels of technology, New Zealand has escaped whatever disaster brought that about (nuclear war, most likely) to develop a shiny, technologically advanced, socially liberal future. The sense has always been that New Zealand is so far away from everything it will stay pure and untainted by the evils that befall the rest of the planet. Not sure that holds true any more.

  4. Yes to all of this. It first dawned on me after Wilhelm's post mentioning other recent tensions in the US-China relationship. The worst I tend to hear about China here is that they like to sell us cheap crap that doesn't work on Amazon, but then that's just your everyday globalisation / capitalism problems.

    1. One of the more ironic aspects of this whole story is that I grew up in an era when "Made in Hong Kong" was the universal shorthand for "cheap plastic rubbish". Now it's "Made in China" and it covers the entire commercial spectrum from crap to high-end tech. Not sure how much has changed from the consumer's perspective.

  5. From today's Guardian:

    Certainly I've noticed in my own studies a rapid rise in the number of Chinese students in classes across London, their presence may well enable a new kind of 'soft power' for influencing how debates are conducted and how universities and university unions operate.

    1. That's intersting, although hardly new. I remember stories about Chinese students at UK places of learning going back quite a few years. Also, living in a World Heritage city with a huge, all-year-round flow of tourists, the number of Chinese visitors has increased enormously. I do wonder about the reported restrictions on the Chinese people when I see so many young (and not so young) Chinese people roaming around my city behaving prtetty much the same as I do when I go on holiday. I realize we only see the people who (are permitted to) travel but they really don't seem very sisnister to me.

    2. I've been seeing occasional reports about the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations, which every Chinese student studying in the US is required to join. It started out as a support org for the students, but since Xi came to power it has been increasingly pushing members to be politically active in a pro-China way on campuses. The California chapters seem to be particularly politicized.

      Also, an odd side effect of the US/China trade war is China threatening to allow fewer students to come to the US. This actually has some universities mildly upset as the Chinese government pays full fare for their students.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide