Thursday, 7 November 2019

The Fall of World of Warcraft

Videogames and Politics in a time of Authoritarian Revival


Some time ago, I wrote here of a very special computer game.

A game which saved my life. A game which grew into a core aspect of my existence, so much more than ‘just a game’. It offered me community, belonging, friendship, a sense of fulfilment, and the power to hold authoritarians to account by hurling fireballs at them – all things denied me by the corrupt societies of Earth, yet provided by this game in sufficient measure that I could endure by moving between the two worlds as needed. More than fourteen years have now passed since I first stumbled into the vast and beautiful world of Azeroth that forms the main setting of World of Warcraft (WoW).

It wasn’t a paradise. There were terrible times in it as well as good ones. But it was – is – part of who I am. It was the closest thing I have known in this world to home.

And then, in the space of one week in October 2019, World of Warcraft fell.



Two Stories
The company responsible for WoW, Activision Blizzard (originally and colloquially just Blizzard), has grown into a behemoth of the videogames industry on the back of WoW’s titanic success. Together with its other major franchises like Starcraft, Diablo, Overwatch and Hearthstone, its subscribers span the world and number in the millions.

Eventually this rise propelled it into the extremely lucrative Chinese market. In the same period, the People’s Republic of China has lurched into a resurgent authoritarianism under the rule of Xi Jinping, a distinct feature of which has been an obsessive coercive control over the Chinese information environment. Foreign companies operating there are in effect required to abide with strict government expectations that they will not contain even the slightest hint of dissent at the ruling party, its vision, or its increasingly atrocious abuses of those of its people – be they political opponents, social activists or ethnic minorities – who do not fit the official narrative of China’s national character and journey.

The definition of this under Chinese law is extremely vague. That is deliberate. Under its present authoritarian leadership China lacks an independent rule of law. This relates directly to the current crisis in Hong Kong, which in turn has been directly pertinent to the fate of WoW. The immediate trigger of the Hong Kong conflict was the threat of new extradition laws that would break down the barrier between Hong Kong’s legal system, with its relative political independence, and the arbitrary system in mainland China where legal outcomes are often politically-determined.

What that system means in practice for games companies is that compliance tends to take the form of prior self-censorship to lower the risk of problems in the first place. The infamous covering-up of undead characters’ exposed bones in the Chinese version of WoW was a prime example. More generally, games are shepherded into conformity by the local partners through which foreign companies have to operate, in Blizzard’s case the Chinese company NetEase.

Perhaps that coercive environment is one reason Blizzard’s games are phenomenally popular in China. If there is a common thread to all its games – their gameplay, their storylines, their experiences – it is heroism: the ability of random anybodies from humble backgrounds to work hard, gradually build their power and renown, and through courage, sheer strength of will and good old teamwork, vanquish one after another of a rogues’ gallery of tyrants, warmongers, demons, dragons and malevolent gods. Good ultimately prevails over evil; freedom overthrows oppression. ‘The world could always use more heroes’, says Tracer of Overwatch in that game’s famous signature. ‘No king rules forever’, one of WoW’s most tenacious dictators was reminded as he lay dying.

There are obvious ethical complications in this view of the world, which in our neo-colonial reality tends to get parsed rather tiredly through arguments about cultural diversity and individual rights versus community interests. Explorations are certainly possible into how far Blizzard’s games derive from the company’s American background. But on a personal level I for one found it incredibly empowering to enter WoW as a Level 1 gnome with a stick, stumbling through the snow on a journey which within a few years had turned him into a meteor-flinging pyromancer blasting down one arrogant oppressor after another. At best this accountability was administered side-by-side with some fabulous teams of people, many of them likewise considered eccentric by the outside world and finding in WoW a validating alternative to outside societies’ abusiveness and hostility to difference. If WoW did so much for them and for me, then what of its service to people living beneath the totalitarian judgementalism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)?

What we were watching here was WoW’s story growing in two incompatible directions. On one branch was etched those words: ‘no king rules forever’. But at the same time, the other branch was twisting and bending to enter the story of a bloodthirsty king obsessed with living forever – so obsessed that he died from consuming mercury in his search for an immortality elixir, but who lives on in Xi Jinping atop a Chinese civilisation his authoritarian worldview has cursed for two thousand years.

A WoW of heroic struggle against oppressors, and a WoW of expedient submission to them. To be both at once was not sustainable. The time would come to choose between them.

When it did, they chose poorly.



The Fall
On 6th October 2019, a participant in Hearthstone televised professional competition, Ng Wai Chung – known as ‘Blitzchung’ – protested the CCP’s violent repression of Hong Kong by stating ‘liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times’ in Chinese during a post-match interview. Blizzard responded by summarily throwing him out of the tournament, rescinding his $10,000 match winnings, and imposing on him a one-year ban on competitive play. On top of that, the two TV casters who had been interviewing him, guilty of nothing, also had their contracts terminated.

The public backlash was instant and ferocious. Players, professional competitors, journalists and current and former Blizzard staff lined up to condemn the company for appearing to do the bidding of the Chinese authorities in suppressing freedom of speech and voices for human rights. The damnation was particularly intense in the United States, where a pattern of similar high-profile China censorship scandals was befalling the National Basketball Association (NBA), Apple and several other companies. People began cancelling their Blizzard subscriptions; the hashtag #BoycottBlizzard started to trend on Twitter. Another Hearthstone team, American University, held up a ‘Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizz’ sign during one of their matches and were later also banned for their trouble. Some thirty Blizzard staff walked out and staged a protest outside their California HQ, covering up the slogans ‘Think Globally’ and ‘Every Voice Matters’ on a statue displaying the company’s purported values. Other games companies spoke out either to wiggle their fingers against ‘political’ speech like Blizzard had, or more courageously, to declare they wouldn’t punish their players for it (and here I extend respect to Tim Sweeney of Epic, whose classic ZZT was a staple of my childhood). Most potently, the character of Mei from Overwatch began to appear as a symbol of the Hong Kong protests, raising the possibility that a clampdown from the Chinese censors might punish Blizzard in the very markets they thought they were protecting their presence in.

Blizzard remained silent throughout this storm, giving the impression they hoped it would die down of its own accord. When it didn’t, they contrived to make matters worse. On October 12th President J. Allen Brack released a long statement that attempted to justify their punishment of Blitzchung, while also halving his ban and reinstating his prize money. It was an extremely unconvincing non-apology that only served to further inflame Blizzard’s critics, and as people like former Blizzard designer Mark Kern deconstructed it more carefully it came to look downright suspicious: as though it had originally been written in Chinese, and was aimed not as an apology to aggrieved fans but a promise to the Chinese authorities that such an embarrassment would not happen again.



Video Games are Political
Not everybody shared in the anger at Blizzard’s actions. WoW is a complex world that different people experience in their own ways, and a great many were not sufficiently invested in either Hong Kong or the more general problems of humankind to care. A common line you hear in gaming discourse is ‘it’s just a game mate’, and no doubt for many people WoW is indeed ‘just a game’, providing them with enjoyment which they value more than strangers harmed by the company’s political decisions. (But let us not even dignify with attention the adherents of free-market ideology who claim that it is in businesses’ nature, rather than choices, to prioritise profit over the welfare of people affected by their actions.)

In fact there is no separation between games and politics any more than there is in sports, whose inherent political character goes back millennia and is as salient in this age of oppression as it ever has been. To claim to be apolitical is itself a political position: a satisfaction with and de facto support for the status quo. At best it is naïve; at worst it is perniciously disingenuous; and either way it speaks from a position of privilege not available to people who get no say in whether the politics happens to them.

Video game politics, despite the relative infancy of their history as a medium, already have baleful form. While on the one hand they have been empowering and liberating, their notorious dark side as a tenacious harbour for racism, stigmatisation of disabled or mentally ill people, and especially misogyny, transphobia and other forms of gender-based bigotry is news to no-one. The GamerGate hate movement anticipated a whole new generation of toxic-masculinist far-right political thuggery that then found world-changing expression in Trump, Brexit and similar truth-unravelling, social-media-savvy forces that have risen to power worldwide; in some ways it directly laid their operational foundations.


In WoW I witnessed those strains of political poison disgorged on a regular basis whether in random groups, in-game public channels, or the forums of external websites. As in many other game communities, no-one has bothered, even after a decade and a half, to design a method for holding those behind it to account. That strain of politics – ultimately, fascism – is in effect deemed acceptable. Conversely, expressions like those of Blitzchung or others calling out oppression or attempting to improve either the representation or experience of, say, women, gender-diverse people or ethnic minorities in videogames, are regularly met with a scathing cacophony of ‘stop making it political’ or ‘it’s a game mate, keep your politics out of it’, if not outright punishment by the game authorities as in the Blitzchung affair.

Let’s be clear what this means. The politics of videogames has already played a decisive role in helping the most murderous political forces ever known on this Earth, as a matter of historical fact, to reawaken as a real and present threat to all humankind in the twenty-first century. Possibly the most serious threat, given its implications for the climate and ecological catastrophe as well as human freedom and safety everywhere. Blizzard’s decision to suppress voices challenging that threat must be read in that context as an explicitly political act: one that favours the trolls and tyrants, and promotes the suffering of dissidents and people considered different.

That context doesn’t go away if game developers pretend it’s not there. In their attempts to do just that, Blizzard had, in effect, declared in support of violent authoritarianism, and in opposition to the heroic struggle against it.

No authoritarian takes and wields power entirely by themselves. Atrocities from those of Hitler and Stalin to the present-day American border concentration camps, the English attempt at ethnic cleansing through the ‘hostile environment’, and Chinese cultural genocide in Xinjiang (yes, let’s call things what they are) can only take place because they are enabled by a sufficient mass of the population which, even if not in active support of those crimes, are cowardly or indifferent enough to keep their heads down and carry on business as usual. In a world like that, the atrocities will never stop – not until ordinary people take responsibility to think critically and speak out against blatant and egregious violent decisions.

Actions like Blizzard’s have real consequences. In this case, they signal to the CCP that its behaviour is acceptable, thus helping to enable further violence against people in Hong Kong as well as China more widely (including serious threats to Chinese overseas). They also signal to those oppressed that if they open their mouths to complain about it or call for help, they can expect a video games company, of all things, to join in their punishment. The belief that after all that there remains a respectable ‘keep politics out of it’ position to take does not even deserve consideration.



A Home No Longer
WoW was never without its problems. Humans play it, after all, and find the capacity to be terrible within it in all the ways they do so outside it. Toxic relationships, abusive groups, racist and gender-based hate speech, egomaniacal power-tripping and appalling cruelty are all things players encounter in it, and over fourteen years their presence in WoW at times caused serious injury to my life outside it.

But WoW as a whole is larger than any such villainy, and none of it upset what that world meant to me at a fundamental level. Blizzard’s decision to take the side of the authoritarians did. It devastated, instantaneously and utterly, everything that WoW has meant to me for nearly half my lifetime.

Not only because Hong Kong and China both have deep personal significance to me. Opposition to authoritarianism – rage at the heinous suffering it inflicts on this world, and at the destruction of my youth in bitter struggles with its English variants (which are just as barbarous as the Chinese ones) – has been the core of my political consciousness since a childhood when, like nowhere before or since, I called Hong Kong home. For most of the years since, if I had yet to find a way to confront the scourge of authoritarianism with a more decisive challenge, WoW was the place where I could do so by proxy, in a different world, at least to experience the sensation of it and get better at it till a time I could do so in this one.

Blizzard’s action stripped WoW of that entire meaning at a stroke. What substance remains in fighting the monsters in it, if the subscription money is going to those who support the monsters outside it? What is left of ‘the world could always use more heroes’ if at the first sight of actual heroes that world’s custodians brandish staplers at their mouths?

After the first two or three days of this scandal, the world I was logging into each morning already felt hollow. Routines that had been part of my day for so many years – to zoom around the world completing quick quests for gold or artifact power while chatting with fellow guild members – suddenly tasted so futile that they fell away in a few moments. WoW belonged to the authoritarians now. It was terminally corrupt. And suddenly, after a decade and a half in it, I realised with mounting anguish that it was no longer a home.

In the hours that followed this realisation was confirmed. I was a member of two different communities in WoW. They were led by marvellous people and had given me opportunities for regular and meaningful social activity in a way the outside world never had. This is something I believe many people whose most important and rewarding relationships (not to mention families) originated in WoW will relate to. But as hours and days passed, it became apparent that a gulf had opened between me and these fellows. Some of them were critical of Blizzard and offered supportive words, but at an essential level, they were all still able to find comfort and enjoyment in the game. I was not. That sense of connection had gone, and to stay there surrounded by people having fun in it as usual while the tear gas, rubber bullets and condescending bluster of the oppressors of Hong Kong ruled the air was too painful to bear. The only recourse to protect my mental health was to leave both communities, and so WoW’s significance to me as a social world evaporated too.

After some final record-taking and exchanges of contact details, I left WoW and cancelled my subscription. This has meant ruined friendships and the loss of my main social circles, much of my daily routine, and indeed an entire world whose masters decided it was worth leaving behind not only me and thousands of other disgusted players, but the very values which made WoW a strong place; a good place. In effect it has been a bereavement, requiring a painful full-scale readjustment of my life.

Though it may appear a principled choice, the fact is that there was little choice in it. I did not leave WoW so much as WoW left me. Those to whom it was so much more than ‘just a game’ – those to whom it brought love, hope, safety, freedom, a future – will understand just what level of hurt Blizzard’s actions have inflicted, and perhaps forgive description of these events with a word we should be extremely careful about using but which I believe matches the gravity of their deeds: betrayal.

In complying with the authoritarians, they betrayed their players. They betrayed their basic human duty to do no harm to other people. But perhaps worst of all, they betrayed their own stories, and it is from that last that those involved will never recover.

A beautiful world, the world that saved my life, is no more. I mourn its passing.

'There was not even any sound, because of the sand.'

Meanwhile something dark remains in its place, which short of drastic political change within the company can only sink deeper into the abyss. Which raises the question: will Activision Blizzard be held to account?


After the Fall
The weeks following the Blitzchung affair saw it swell from a tremor in the gaming industry into a full-blown international scandal. Blizzard’s repute was sullied across the pages of mainstream newspapers and media outlets. Their behaviour is under scrutiny not as mere corporate naughtiness but as a political phenomenon condemnable in the strongest terms, both from the left as a danger to human rights and from the right as a civilisational threat: namely, compliance in the CCP’s attempts to spread its censorship policies beyond China’s borders to suppress freedoms in other lands. Even the U.S. Congress deemed it serious enough to issue an open letter to Blizzard’s Chief Executive to express their ‘deep concern’ about the mistreatment of Blitzchung and urge them to reconsider; it was signed by several representatives including the formidable Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a rare instance of American cross-party cooperation.

As pressure mounted, a launch event for Overwatch on the Nintendo Switch in New York was cancelled at short notice. So was a WoW 15th anniversary event in Taiwan. Observers began to wonder how the scandal might overshadow BlizzCon, Blizzard’s massive annual convention and the biggest event in its calendar, held on 1st-2nd November in Anaheim, California. Sure enough, barely two days ahead of it, it emerged that the Taiwan branch of Mitsubishi Motors had pulled out from sponsoring Blizzard’s e-sports events following their punishment of Blitzchung.

BlizzCon itself however was a disappointment for those hoping for signs of either reckoning or lessons learnt. Most of the attendees are dedicated fans who book their coveted places months in advance and pay considerable sums of money to travel to it, so it was never a likely setting for nemesis to strike. A small but vigorous protest did make itself seen and heard outside the site’s layers of security, while a couple of courageous individuals succeeded in raising Hong Kong’s name in a Q&A session of the convention itself, plunging the hall into a guilty silence.

Protesters outside BlizzCon 2019 (from the Washington Post).

Most visibly, J. Allen Brack, in whose name the dubious non-apology of October 12th was issued, opened the convention with an actual apology this time. This was effective in spreading headlines that Blizzard had uttered the word ‘sorry’, but otherwise was as vague as a professional PR team could possibly have been designed it to be. They had apparently ‘moved too quickly in (their) decision’ and were ‘too slow to talk with all of you’ – the apology went that far, and no further. Though Brack stated he would ‘accept accountability’, he made no specific reference to the Blitzchung incident or Hong Kong and suggested nothing further as to what form that accountability would take, whether in terms of actions or policy changes; or whether the original punishments would be reversed; or how the damage done by their favourable signalling to authoritarians would be repaired; or whether something similar could happen again in future. The opening then seamlessly segued into what was effectively a feelgood self-congratulation for their role in ‘bring(ing) the world together’ with ‘the positive power of videogames’, followed by the dramatic unveiling of new games and the next WoW expansion. After the convention, it was quietly confirmed that no, the original punishments would not be rescinded.

As such, it seems Blizzard is continuing in their approach of pursuing business as usual and hoping that criticism will die down, save from a small minority of affected former players whose market impact can be ignored. I shall not predict whether that strategy will succeed, because that is a matter not of facts of life, but of choice. Every individual involved with Blizzard and their games, be it with producing them, playing them or talking about them, has a responsibility to reflect on as to whether they are okay with this situation, and if not, then on what means are available to them to hold such behaviour to account.

There are many ways to do that. Cancelling subscriptions to Blizzard’s games is the most obvious, but there are legitimate reasons that might be difficult – the human cost I have borne from doing so attests to that – and there are plenty other recourses if that is not an option.  You can take part in protest events like those at BlizzCon. You can get involved with groups like Gamers for Freedom, and write of your concerns to Blizzard, its sponsors, or your political representatives (and this matters – remember that even the likes of the US Congress is involved in this now). If nothing else, simply speaking up about it in your everyday life helps to make public discourse more difficult for the authoritarians and those who enable them to operate. Acknowledge the politics of video games and make yourself more aware of it, as well as of politics in general. Confront those who deny there is a politics or who abuse those who speak out. Be alert to prevent the hijacking of this movement by the tribalists of the far right, who are always looking for such opportunities; keep the discussion safe for people across the wide spectra of human diversity, and reject its mis-shaping into a racist attack against Chinese people. The problem is not China, nor even ‘communism’ (which is a different conversation altogether), but authoritarianism, which has no flag and ruins all nations.

If enough people’s choices amount to a critical mass of such action, you will not only effect political change at Blizzard in this instance, but empower the people of Hong Kong in their struggle for freedom, place pressure on the authoritarians in the CCP and elsewhere, and just possibly, have a contribution you can sign in the history books to reshaping the long-term politics of this world to make it a kinder and safer place for all human beings.

Right now, the conflict in Hong Kong grows darker and more violent by the week. Though part of me anxiously hopes it will not be the case, the current Chinese leadership’s total failure to empathise with Hong Kong’s people, and knowledge of no other means to address problems beyond insults and vicious force, make me fear that serious bloodshed lies ahead.

If it does, it is in that outcome that Blizzard and those involved in their games will have to weigh their responsibility. My authoritarian-blasting gnome, now returned to my soul, shall be weighing it too.

No king rules forever, Mr. Ying Zheng.

 

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