Blizzard's Hong Kong censorship is a symptom of gaming's deep-rooted fear of politics
I want to talk about Blizzard, the mega successful video game developer and publisher. Blizzard, the creator of World of Warcraft, Starcraft and Hearthstone. The same Blizzard that, in the last month, has been caught up, alongside the NBA, in the broader discussion surrounding China and the Hong Kong democracy protests.
I want to talk about censorship and the situation with Hearthstone pro player Blitzchung. A player banned for six months after publicly supporting those protests during a Hearthstone Grand Masters livestream.
What do we moderate? What do we actively censor? These are questions video games as a culture and industry have been wrestling with since the year dot. But if the last decade has taught us anything it's this: In video game land you're far more likely to be censored for taking a political stance than being a racist, sexist bigot. Especially if those political stances affect the bottom line.
In video game land women are continually harassed online and racial slurs abound in esports. Almost half of the world's gamers are female yet barely any feature in professional esports teams. A terrifying number of online video game spaces are cesspools, hostile to every kind of minority group you can imagine, to the point where white supremacists are going straight to the source, actively trying to recruit teenagers via video games and the online spaces they occupy using Gamergate as an entry point.
"You can activate that army," Steve Bannon, former executive chairman of Breitbart and former chief strategist from the Trump administration, once said. "They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump."
Effective attempts at pushing back, or moderating those spaces, are few and far between. Community Guidelines are written, reporting systems built, sure. Blizzard even recently teamed up with Twitch in an attempt to tackle online abuse. But these are Band-aid solutions for a gaping wound that's been festering for decades. Much like issues surrounding social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, video game spaces were left unmoderated for too long and chaos spawned in the vacuum. All that's left now is damage control.
That's the landscape we're dealing with. That's the world Blizzard is playing in. Their response to Blitzchung is just another symptom of a deep-rooted disease that's been lingering for decades.
Every Voice Matters
On Oct. 8, 2019, Blizzard banned Hearthstone pro Chung "Blitzchung" Ng Wai after he showed support for Hong Kong protesters focused on democratic rights. "Liberate Hong Kong!" he said on camera during a Hearthstone livestream, wearing a mask similar to those worn by protesters in the beleaguered city's streets.
Blizzard initially banned Blitzchung from Hearthstone competitions for a year and stripped him of his prize money. Later, Blizzard reduced the ban to six months and returned Blitzchung's winnings. Reactions to this news were vocal and instantaneous.
Despite being 5% owned by Chinese company Tencent, Blizzard denied its relationship with China had anything to do with the decision to ban Blitzchung. A statement posted on Blizzard's official Weibo account appeared to contradict that.
Regardless, it was a terrible look for Blizzard, a company whose values "Think Globally" and "Every Voice Matters" were literally papered over in a silent staff protest against the decision. Several staff members also staged a walkout.
(Note: When contacted for comment, Blizzard said it had nothing to add to a previous statement, found here.)
When it comes to politics, the games industry is remarkably effective at self-censorship.
Publishers, and developers in many cases, are terrified of "politics." Terrified of discussing it, terrified of engaging in it. Terrified of offending the worst sections of its audience by placing its games in the midst of any type of political discourse. Consider Ubisoft's Houdini-esque claim that The Division 2, a video game about social collapse and environmental terrorism, wasn't
in any way political.
Consider Square-Enix, creators of the game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, a game where robots are segregated and treated differently from humans. Square-Enix used the words "mechanical apartheid" in marketing material for the game, then insisted they'd created a video game where they were "trying hard to not to take a side."
It's par for the course in an industry where games featuring female protagonists (or any protagonists that aren't white straight men with buzzcuts) are criticized by certain segments of the gaming population for being "too political."
This is the vacuum we've created for ourselves in these unmoderated spaces. Spaces where politics is more taboo than bigotry. The games industry is living with the consequences of zero consequences, partly responsible for a community that's comfortable with racism and sexism but completely allergic to political discourse.
In August, roughly two months before Blitzchung was banned, Blizzard released World of Warcraft Classic.
Classic is a newly created version of Blizzard's most famous game, World of Warcraft. A retro-inspired update that takes MMO players back to World of Warcraft as it existed in 2006. The mechanics, the visuals -- all of it has been re-created perfectly. Including, it turns out the attitudes of some of its worst inhabitants.
One of the most maligned spaces in World of Warcraft is The Barrens. Not necessarily the area itself, but the players who reside there. The Barrens was well known for its toxic community that spouted racist viewpoints almost in competition with one another, to see who could be most offensive. It was an in-joke so popular it spawned its own T-shirt.
In 2006 The Barrens was home to some of the worst online behavior of its time. You'd think (hope) that might have toned down in 2019. That the audience, most likely players in their 30s returning for a nostalgia kick, might have grown out of their edgelord ways.
Sadly, that wasn't the case. In a newsletter, freelance writer Steve Rousseau did a fantastic job of chronicling his experiences in The Barrens as it exists in 2019.
"My very first evening in the Barrens," he wrote, "was spent watching someone argue with a dozen people that a vagina tastes bad, actually."
Other moments experienced by Rousseau: Calling transgender people mentally ill, targeted harassment toward players brave enough to stand up to the transphobia. A barrage of racism toward players identifying as being black in the chat.
"After about five minutes of people ignoring this player," Rousseau wrote, "they then started to use the n-word and bragged about how Blizzard wouldn't ban them."
But Blizzard did ban Blitzchung, for making a political statement on their turf. Because in video game land, being political -- above being racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic -- is just about the worst thing you can be.