Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Moral Relativism: WoW Classic

It was something of a surprise for me this morning to find a bunch of "Boycott Blizzard" and "I'm quitting " posts in my RSS feed. In the handful of days I was away something blew up.

The whole thing appears to be layered in the way WoW Classic's servers aren't supposed to be any more. There seem to be freedom of speech issues going on here, political footprint issues, and draw the line issues.

There are also potential legal and commercial ramifications for Blizzard, who, at the very least, seem to have handled the whole situation in a hamfisted manner. The company now has a familiar task in front of it: rehabilitate their image in a highly volatile and emotional marketplace.

We've seen this repeatedly over the years as video game companies fail to behave in the manner their customers imagined they would. It's happened to just about every major developer and publisher and most of the minor ones too.

Blizzard is one of those companies that has been able to leverage an extraordinary degree of customer loyalty for a surprisingly long time. I thought Everwake put it particularly well:
"Nothing Blizzard is doing is different from what western companies have been doing for the past 3 decades. But we care more about this one because Blizzard was special. It created games, worlds, and memories that we could pour ourselves into. Turns out Blizzard wasn't really worthy of that love."
It's all about projection. Companies have "Mission Statements" and "Corporate Values". I remember very distinctly when I first came across the concept. I was working for a smallish subsidiary of a major international insurance company when we got our first official "Mission Statement".

I can't now recall what it actually said, only that, as Marketing Director (a more junior position than it sounds) I had to proofread the thing in a number of documents. I do remember thinking it was fatuous and taking the mickey out of it with colleagues who found it equally vacuous and self-serving.

Since then I have always assumed that all corporate statements of social intent are valueless ciphers, intended only to enhance the company's ability to make progress in spheres where income otherwise unavailable might be be found. It wouldn't occur to me that any company, charities and "Not for Profits" included, would have, at the level these shiboleths are signed off, anything other than direct, corporate advantage in mind.

Consequently I have never entertained any illusions that any company providing me with services or products would hesitate to throw me - or my loyalty - under a metaphorical bus if it would serve their purposes. Brand loyalty is nothing more than a psychological device designed to enhance corporate stability and provide a predictable income stream.

That said, it's also fun to have favorites. I have consistently said that my favorite MMORPG producer is and has always been Sony Online Entertainment and their successors Daybreak Games. That remains the case, even though SOE were responsible for some of the most egregious and unforgiveable betrayals of trust in the genre and DBG have obfuscated their corporate ownership to such a degree that who my money is going to when I pay my All Access sub is all but unknowable.

Slaying the Corporate Ogres with the Sword of Moral Indignation.

I don't expect companies who get my money to behave well. I expect them to sell me things I want at prices I'm willing to pay. Any other layer of emotion above that is a game I'm consciously playing with myself for my own amusement.

With no illusions of kinship between consumer and producer, the question remains: how to react to perceived transgressions? To what standards of corporate responsibility does one hold a notional aggregrated entity?

I have always been deeply uncomfortable with un-nuanced, absolutist stances on ethical and moral issues, even when I find myself intrinsically in agreement with them. The Specials uncompromising statement ("If you have a racist friend/ Now is the time, now is the time/ For your friendship to end.") in the song "Racist Friend" always bothered me and I found it highly instructive to discover that Jerry Dammers, who penned the lyrics, also found himself troubled by them:
"...for Dammers, who confesses he is "not a confrontational person", the song was substitute for a more direct challenge. He never actually got to tell the person why he had broken off contact.
"He actually died a few years ago. I didn't see him for years and years afterwards. When I heard that he'd died, I felt terrible that I hadn't told him that the song was about him, and why I'd cut myself off from him."
It's often easier to take the moral high ground and disengage than to stay and argue your case. Which is more likely to have an effect on the transgressor?

Another response to offense that I've never found convincing is the setting of boycotts. Boycotts generally seem to me to have the primary effect of making the person doing the boycotting feel better about the situation and about themselves. It gives the impression of action and allows the boycotter to regain some sense of control in a situation where otherwise they feel powerless.

Some boycotts do have effects. The long sporting strangulation of apartheid South Africa, together with the numerous economic boycotts that were sporadically effected alongside it, reportedly contributed significantly to the eventual fall of that despotic regime.

How effective the multifarious lockdowns attempted on individual companies over the years have been is much harder to parse. It always seems to me that "voting with your wallet" is about as likely to have the desired effect as casting your democratic vote does when the prevailing majority prefers another candidate to your own.

What often does seem to have a visible and meaningful effect in these situations is withdrawal of commercial support by peers, not customers. When advertisers and sponsors start to withdraw or cancel their contracts and make public statements dissociating themselves from their erstwhile, now errant, partners, then we do sometimes see a change of direction and even a contrite apology.

This is because significant sums are involved and corporate futures are in doubt. In the case of Blizzard, calculations will be made - will already have been made - around the relative potential damage to income streams that come from offending Western customers as opposed to appeasing China.

Blizzard-approved cultural stereotype.

Cancelling subscriptions and refusing to play Blizzard games sends a message but unless the commercial fallout is likely to be more damaging than the loss of income from sources under control of the Chinese state authorities, it's a message that can readily be ignored. Time will inevitably see any such strong reactions fade amongst most Blizzard subscribers to the point where continuing a boycott will seem as quaint as do the cadre of SWG veterans that still won't buy Sony products.

There are corporate actions that would spur me to cease doing business with a company. Not in the expectation that doing so would make them see the error of their ways but more selfishly and solipsistically because it would make me feel more comfortable. I wouldn't play a game that actively endorsed moral choices I reprehend or one whose developers or owners did so as a matter of course.

Ironically, given that I'm writing this and posting it on the World Wide Web for anyone to read, freedom of speech isn't one of my trigger issues. Contrary to popular belief, citizens of the United Kingdom, where I live and have always lived, have no formal right to "freedom of expression" and it forms no part of my culturally dictated belief system.

On the contrary, we have what are known, in somewhat Orwellian fashion, as "negative rights": there are numerous legal proscriptions on what U.K. citizens can say or write in public. I agree with the existence of such enforceable limits and indeed might well support their extension to include more restrictive legislation on public discourse, depending on what those restrictions might be.

I am very much not in favor of the so-called "right to offend". It's my feeling that there's a very great difference between the invaluable existence of the kind of "freedom of the press" that existed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and a general free-for-all, where anyone can express any damn thing they please regardless of the effect it has on those who listen.

Bringing this all back to video games, what spurred the controversy was the banning of a Hearthstone player and others for expressing solidarity with the ongoing campaign in Hong Kong against further erosion of the freedoms supposedly guaranteed under the exit agreement that was negotiated with China, when the former British-ruled colony reverted to Chinese governance in 1997. The moral question is whether players of Blizzard's games should either cease to play them altogether or at least cease to pay for those parts which require payment.

That in itself is a nice moral choice: you could argue that to play the games and not pay for them would be a neat way to punish Blizzard. Only World of Warcraft requires a subscription. Everything else is either free to play or required a one-time purchase that would have been made before the controversy arose. Why not use their resources while giving them nothing?

I logged in to get a screenshot of populations in the hope of making some kind of point on the effectiveness or otherwise of the boycott, only to find Blizzard have changed the way they represent server load. I'm guessing "Layered" means a lot of people still.

From my perspective I see two valid reasons to cancel a subscription and/or stop playing Blizzard games:
  1. You believe doing so will have a meaningful impact either on Blizzard's future actions or the actions of similar companies in equivalent situations;
  2. It makes you feel better about yourself.
Neither of those applies for me. I think Blizzard will take whatever public relations steps they feel best mitigates the damage, while doing nothing whatsoever to diminish the effect they intended to create by their original action.

If they'd calculated that supporting the protestor would have been in their financial interest, that's what they would have done. Unless that balance changes, which appears unlikely, corporate decision-making will be unaffected, although they may make some changes to how they present those decisions in future.

As for making myself feel better I'm fairly certain I'll feel worse for denying myself the pleasure of playing the MMORPG I'm currently enjoying the most. It's not that I deny the satisfaction that comes from feeling morally superior (or at least consistent) nor the power of the illusion of self-worth that comes with donning the hair shirt, but this is not a hill on which I'm prepared to pause and self-evaluate, far less die.

It's a self-serving and morally questionable response but I make those every day of my life. This is just another in the never-ending chain that binds us to this imperfect existence we call life.

For what it's worth I think the protestor was entirely justified in his actions and from what I've read he clearly understood the implications. What's more, I'm sure he'll be delighted that Blizzard made the fundamental mistake of inflating his actions with the industrial wind-machine of publicity. Had they taken no action and made no comment at all, none of us would even know any of this had ever happened.

And now I'm going to go level my Hunter. I haven't played for three days and I'm itching to get back to Classic.


  1. So in short: "all you guys shut up and let me play my game, I don't care what Blizzard does"? Apart from the endless justifications and rationalizations you provided, is there really any other meaning?

    1. Well, I'm not suggesting anyone shuts up. People should do what makes them feel most comfortable, which includes expressing their feelings in whatever channels they find appropriate. That's what I just did. If I was genuinely uninterested in the whole thing I wouldn't have commented at all.

      I read all the posts and a lot of the surrounding material and much of it was very interesting. I already had a general background on the Hong Kong situation but I know more about it now than I did a few hours ago as a result of this publicity. In that respect the intent of the protestor has been well served. I just don't believe me not paying a video game is going to affect the outcome of that situation one iota.

      The general backlash may have some effect on Blizard, though. It has on some companies in the past, although as I said it's usually loss of advertizing revenue that does the job. I don't think Blizzard is vulnerable to that. But we'll see how it turns out. Maybe Blizzard will recant. If so it will show just how much financial damage can be inflicted through wallet power. I wouldn't take it to mean that the company, as an entity, has had a change of heart.

  2. "I am very much not in favor of the so-called “right to offend​”. It’s my feeling that there’s a very great difference between the invaluable existence of the kind of “freedom of the press​” that existed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and a general free-for-all, where anyone can express any damn thing they please regardless of the effect is has on those who listen."

    Ah man, I can just imagine if you said something like this on Reddit you'd be crucified.

    I agree with you, mind.

    1. There's probably a reason I don't use reddit or Twitter. I've been a moral relativist since I was a student and it's a guaranteed way to start an argument - or a fist-fight.

  3. I think you’re crediting Blizzard with way too much sense. Since when does anyone generate profit-loss projections before making a decision?

    It was probably “OMG what did he just do?! Kill it, kill the streams. What can we do about this? Well, boss, we do have this code of conduct he just broke. Oh, ok, excellent, we’re within our legal rights to cut ties with him... go ahead and announce that.”

    *a couple hours and some media posts later* oh. F—k.

    From a personal standpoint, I’d love to join the side of democracy and freedom of speech as well - even as I question some of the more rabid anti-Chinese messaging agenda - but as I don’t actually play any Blizzard games from the get go, all I can do is munch popcorn from the sidelines.

    1. I have to say I was thinking exactly that as I was writing the post. Only yesterday I was pontificating at Mrs Bhagpuss as we drove home about the likelihood of most political decisions being the result of incompetence rather than evil intent. People in general make mistakes far more easily than they carry out cunning plans.

      Then I thought about it and wondered, given the nature of the incident and the sanctions imposed, whether a low-level employee would have had the authority. I have no knowledge of how Blizzard's moderation process operates but I would have thought this would have needed to be flagged up to some relatively senior level before action was taken.

      I also didn't check what the time-lapse between the protest and the sanction was. If it was minutes then it wil be incompetence. If it was hours then possibly not. Also, it raises the question of how deniable this all is. If it was a junior employee acting rashly that opens the door wide for a retraction and a "change of heart". We'd have had that already if they were going that route, I'd have thought. The longer they leave it, the more authority they give the decision and the harder it wil be to overturn it, should they want to do so.

    2. "even as I question some of the more rabid anti-Chinese messaging agenda"

      Some of it (a lot of it, perhaps) seems to be Americans assuming their moral/cultural/societal standards are universal. Some of it is undoubtedly bots and trolls jumping on the bandwagon to sow discontent.

    3. Out of objectivity, I went to go look for the times. Apparently, the incident happened Sunday, and Blizzard posted Tuesday.

      So I take back what I said earlier. They had plenty of business time to formulate and draft a PR reply. The official announcement is actually fairly innocuous.

      The penalty is still a little drastic, especially with the two casters statement thrown in like an afterthought, without explanation on why and how they reached those conclusions. The media jumped on it and spun the reporting really well.

      Sucks to be Blizzard at the moment. Sometimes I guess it's just wrong time, wrong place for making any kind of decision too.

  4. The timing of this makes me wonder if it has to do with China's reaction to a tweet an NBA owner made:

    1. The NBA was mentioned in several of the articles I read on the Blizzard situation. There are going to be plenty more stories like this in the months ahead, I'm sure. Companies that want to walk this line are going to have to work out better strategies for avoiding media firestorms. Not sure how many of them will be competent to do that.

  5. I am annoyed by Blizzard's move. Nothing like publicly making a mockery of the corporate values you were so proud of that you cast them in metal and put the in front of your building. And I also wonder how they justify cutting off the contracts of the two stream casters who didn't know what was going to be said. I'm waiting to see if they will try to walk this back. BlizzCon will be tumultuous if they do not.

    I'm also worried that Blizz won't be able to control this or walk it back even if they want to and that it will become a hammer with which to beat them here in the US for a long time. The timing of this could hardly be worse. A presidential election is about a year away and there is no doubt the candidates will make hay about this.

    Trump, long on about China, ordered all US companies to stop doing business in China back in late August. A lot of people laughed that off. But now Blizz and the NBA have both stepped in it and will no doubt become examples in the Fox news rhetoric. Meanwhile the leading opposition candidates are down on big tech and, while they are after Google and Facebook mostly, I am sure Blizz will make an easy target. Add in the faction that blames gun violence on video games and the simmering lootbox issue, and Blizz could be in for very rough times. Oh, and then there was last week's episode of South Park, "Band in China" that went all in about submitting to censorship in order to get paid was a horrible moral compromise. This is beyond even Daybreak/SOE levels of bad timing.

    But this is what happens when you deal with dictatorships, which are as a rule thin skinned and capricious. I would walk with care defending any freedom from being offended, because people will find offense in everything. Hate speech is a chimera, impossible to pin down, so ends up as an attempt to enforce a particular point of view which often happens to align perfectly with the government's view on the matter.

    As to liberty for Hong Kong, that is a lost cause. The only reason that tanks haven't rolled to crush the protestors is because China doesn't want to put off getting Taiwan back the fold by another 50 years. China is still angry about having their long standing empire taken from them for a short stretch and they won't rest until they get it all back and then some.

    1. That's very much my take on the affair as it stands at the moment. I chose to react somewhat emotionally, although the way I expressed myself may not suggest it, because although knocks against freedom of speech don't tend to press my buttons, knee-jerk reactions to such things often do.

      If I'd left it to simmer a bit longer I'd have come out with more of a considered respnse to the longer-term implications of Blizzard's incompetent handling of the incident rather than a run-down of my well-rehearsed objections to certain kinds of public protest.

      There is, as you suggest, a deep well of political ill-will towards China bubbling under the surface just waiting to be tapped and even corporate giants could find themselves being swept away if they're unwise enough to open the floodgates. I was thinking of the U.S. election timetable, too. China could be a big issue there although possibly Trump has enough on his plate already with Russia and The Ukraine...

      I do think the discussion in the comments above about the timescales involved is key. This wasn't a spur of the moment panic decision by an overwhelmed junior staffer. It's Blizzard's version of a considered, measured response and it took them several days to come up with it. That they've managed to misjudge the room so badly after taking that long to think about it is perhaps the most worrying part.

      I can't see an easy way out of it for them. Like SynCaine said in his post, they're going to have to pick a side and stick with it. They aren't going to be able to keep everyone happy. Blizzcon is indeed going to be interesting.

    2. I am not sure how much Blizz actually got to simmer on this. We don't have an internal view or a timeline. Blizz may have just let it pass only to have the Chinese government pop in later and begin telling them what they needed to do and how quickly they needed to do it, which is just the sort of thing you get when you do deals with dictators. Of course, in the end, Blizz did what they did, made their choice to look good for the Chinese government without due consideration as to how they would look at home.

      I remain on the lookout for some reaction from Blizz.

    3. I hadn't thought of that. Just shows how complicated the whole thing is. I would have said (did say, somewhere) that Blizard's best response would have been to ignore the entire incident and let it fade but it hadn't occured to me they might have had a call from China suggesting that wouldn't be good enough.

      If they made their choice as a direct response to Chinese governmental prompting that puts a different complexion on matters. I wonder if they'll clarify the exact sequence of events? I bet they won't.

    4. I was thinking about Blizzcon myself. I can easily imagine chaos erupting if people start spontaneously shouting pro-Hong Kong slogans during the Keynote, for instance. And if Blizz thinks that won't happen, they're sadly mistaken.

    5. Hong Kong was never free. Under the British, Hong Kong was corrupt and oppressive with serious Gestapo operations by the Brits. China moved in and is leveraging those old corrupt systems for themselves. This is a very complex issue. There is no question that China should have never lost Hong Kong but if the people as a whole want to be their own independent nation then that should be their choice. That is not entirely clear as there is some US intelligence agency involvement and financial support of some of these protest groups. The average Hong Kong person may feel differently. Either way, it is a lost cause. The corrupt systems of the British were never uprooted with their departure and run deep. Hong Kong is important only for the symbolism (Shanghai is their financial jewel for the future). If they release Hong Kong, there goes Taiwan. That the Chinese cannot afford.

  6. I'd been thinking about unsubbing anyway: WoW was getting too grindy per unit fun as I got into the 20s. Blizzard just made it easy.

    1. It is grindy, there's no denying it. I prefer grinding to questing though, so it suits me.

  7. Those of us who choose to stick to our guns(so to speak) have seen this coming for a long time now. Polarizing issues, coupled with political correctness and grandstanding, are slowly eroding a large part of an individuals ability to have any kind of chance of being in the "middle" on any issue as corporations, media, celebrity and state governments are actively involved with the enforcement of the most "correct" and preferred ideologies. Everything that is being done is causing "lines in the sand" to be drawn right down the middle of the political spectrum in a "you're either with us, or against us" mechanism that continues to polarize people globally.

    The situation with Blizzard is just another sign of the times, from a loosely applied prophetic standpoint, and should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention.

    Sometimes a statue is just a statue. Those who attribute any more to it than that are the real enemy, because at that point it becomes a symbol. One that certain people will feel compelled to attack.

    1. In the UK, we went through a prolonged period when the perceived problem was a lack of difference between the poilitical parties and an absence of distinctive, polarized views. I clearly remember the narrative in the media over several years focusing on the way the blandness of political discourse and politicians' almost universal refusal to engage in meaningful discussion on matters of principle was turning an entore generation off of politics and laying down problems for the entire political process. The frequently repearted wish was for more "characters" in poitics and more people standing up for their beliefs rather than competing over who were the better "managers".

      Fast forward a few years a few years and that sounds like a golden age of toplerance and rationality. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for!

    2. Politicians and those who are politically active, choose to be in that arena because they have a vested interest in serving their constituents.

      Corporations and business entities have historically served this process by throwing their support, monetarily or otherwise(voting), behind candidates as the method to show support of a candidate's ideologies in an attempt to get them elected. Today, corporations are resorting to strong arm tactics to force their employees, and others under their scope of control, to become soldiers in their army of agenda driven influence. People are being fired and lives are being ruined because someone holds a particular belief.

      By law, an employer cannot discriminate during the hiring process by discriminating against a person based on matters of race, age, religious or political affiliation. So how in the hell can an employer get away with terminating someone when the employees personal beliefs don't fall in line with some "unspoken" rule that magically exists in the head of someone at the corporate level?

      It encourages the worst trait of corporate behavior - tyranny.

      Shame on Blizzard.

  8. Bhagpuss I applaud you mate. No one has the right to tell you or call you out for playing Blizzard games. Ng Wai Chung decided to (as is his right) to bring attention to the plight of Hong Kong. I don't have to agree with him. I don't have to support him as this is my right. I do however think the situation is appalling and applaud him too for his bravery. Other people saying we should do x and y because they think we should is just utter self entitled rubbish. I will carry on playing Wow, I won't worry if Blizzard do this again and again as it ISN'T something I can influence nor would I want to and because I feel this way I should not be told I'm an awful person etc. End of rant. Peace Out.

    1. Well, so far no-one really has called me out for carrying on playing WoW. It's one of a number of MMORPGs I play and, as I said, there are lines that a company could cross that would make me too uncomfortable to carry on playing but this isn't one of them.

      I was just reading something on the BBC website that mentions both Google and Apple have recently pulled apps due to issues relating to Hong Kong. There was an op-ed piece on today that makes a good case for how this is just the beginning of a major problem for games companies that's not going to go away any time soon. How far into it bloggers are going to want to go is going to be interesting to see. It could all go a bit Gamergate and that saw several bloggers I followed drop out of blogging altogether.

      Edited because I managed to mispell Hong Kong!

  9. Sorry by calling you out I meant to refer to your comment that you would get pelters if you posted this on twitter. Sorry I wasn't very clear.

    1. Heh! If you go into a crowded pub and start yelling your opinions for everyone to hear you can expect some pretty lively feedback. In this corner of the blogosphere it's more like murmuring under your breath at the vicarage garden party :P


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