The Rubicon was crossed, in more ways than one
It took me a while to get to the Blizzard keffeful (certainly a word I don’t get to use often!). I have been going over it again and again, trying to understand it. Not Blizzard’s decision, mind you, that is easy to understand, painfully so. No, what I was trying to understand was the shock and surprise many expressed on YouTube and social media. If anything did surprise me was the amount of pushback Blizzard actually got.
If you’ve been living under a rock (and if you have, do you have a spare room?) the entire episode involved Blizzard banning a Hearthstone player for expressing support for the Hong Kong protests as well as the tournament commentators that allowed him to express said support. The ban was quite severe, stripping the player of his rank in the game, banning him for an entire year and denying him his rightfully won prize money. Effectively, they destroyed his career in response to supporting basic human rights. Similar fates befell the commentators. What a class act.
While Blizzard would soften some of the punishment due to public outrage and political pressure as politicians saw an opportunity to score some publicity out of the event, the underlying reality hadn’t really changed. Blizzard used its power to silence a protest against an authoritarian regime oppressing the people of Hong Kong. It signaled that human rights and freedoms are against their flimsily enforced EULA. In effect, it sided with the Chinese government against the very people struggling to protect their rights. How can I emphasize this enough!?
Some view this as crossing the Rubicon, the historical event where Julius Caesar led his legions south of the river to occupy Rome, destroying the Roman republic and installing what would become a tyrannical regime over the generations. I always squirm at historical analogies but if we really had to call attention to this pivotal moment, I am afraid that ship, as they say, already sailed long ago. Large publishers have crossed the Rubicon so many times by now that you might as well pave over it and install a toll booth to generate some revenue.
Try to understand that as reprehensible Blizzard’s actions are, they are merely the logical end point of a corporation obsessed with profit. For such a corporation, anything that aids in the creation and accumulation of money for its investors and shareholders is kosher. Selling out human rights for Chinese Yuan is just increasing the bottom line for the quarter one in the financial year. If anything, the suits in Blizzard did what was right for the company by banning Blitzchung, they protected their bottom line.
While you are shocked about Blitzchung’s banning, where were you when publishers gutted games to sell already produced content on the first day of the game’s launch, in effect shipping games with locked content on the disc! Where were you when publishers introduced loot boxes to videogames, bringing gambling mechanics into a space populated by children and teenagers that were actively targeted by the mechanic. Not to mention many addicts and psychologically vulnerable people who were preyed upon by loot boxes. Worse yet, these loot boxes often gutted long established content from games (such as cosmetics) in order to sell it for hard cash. Later on they also aided in the introduction of grind into more and more games as loot boxes started offering solutions like skill boosters and in-game currency to skip said grind. Do you see the psychological manipulation on full display yet?
How about online passes which attempted to curtail the used games market, basically penalizing people for purchasing them and trying to force them to buy new copies. How about all the special edition faff (another great word!) that is cheaply produced but steeply sold and in recent years turned into a tiered system of special editions which literally gate content and access according to price. What about the patents publishers filed for various matchmaking systems designed to psychologically pressure players into purchasing microtransactions?
I could go on as these are just a few examples I could remember from the top of my head. There are plenty more over the years in which publishers schemed to drain the public of their hard earned cash. After all, these corporations don’t produce anything. They are not game developers making art. They are financiers, investing in game development then packaging the final product and marketing it for profit. The amount the developers then get is dependent on contracts but the bigger publishers often buy development studios in order to control that as well. Blizzard is not an independent entity but joined in the hip to Activision, one of the worst publishers around whose CEO has often been compared to the devil himself, which is an insult to the devil who at least can disguise his lack of humanity.
Once you see it through that prism its not that hard to understand the rationale behind the bans. The upper echelons in Activision-Blizzard made a cost benefit assessment. They believed they’d lose x amount of players in the west while gain y amount of players in China and so they dropped the ban hammer because it would be more profitable for them. Trying to appeal to their moral or ethical side is as much a waste of time as shouting at the wall, with even less satisfaction, because morality and ethics don’t increase profits. Hbomberguy demonstrated this through his analysis of “Woke” brands.
Not to mention that the people making the decisions, those in upper management, are not part of the same social circles as the rest of us plebs are. The investors and CEOs are often extremely rich individuals who are insulated from the moral outcome of the practices they implement in their “content” thanks to that extreme wealth. Google any major publishing CEO’s net worth and you would not be disappointed. These people don’t view gamers as people but as wallets to be milked. Whatever they decide which negatively impacts our hobby they won’t suffer from. If anything their wealth and position makes them more sympathetic to the likes of the Chinese government than the people of Hong Kong fighting for their freedom. After all, they belong to the same class as the rulers of China and its top officials, not the grubby proletariat trying to escape the daily grind of life with some electronic entertainment.
This is the sad truth. Gamers are the real commodity for these companies, and investors are funneling money into them not on the back of strong game catalogues or artistic merit but on how well these companies monetize said gamers. This is what drives investment analysis and the wild share price swings. Its sickening, but it doesn’t make this any less true.
At this point, the few of you who actually read my column are probably feeling hopeless and it is understandable. The system is literally rigged against us. However it doesn’t have to be. Outside of moral outrage and making noise on social media, there is something gamers can do to fight the abuse and blatant corruption. We can start campaigns of conscience to bring light to these abuses. We can pressure politicians in western democracies to actually legislate and regulate these companies, We can vote to elect politicians whose platforms will include such reforms. We can keep the issue alive and in the minds of gamers and mainstream media and force such a reckoning. It is also useful to remind people large publishers avoid paying taxes, sometimes at all, thanks to tax loopholes that should be erased.
Only through strict regulation will these companies do what is right, because as we’ve seen before, they won’t otherwise. It was government action and threats of more regulation that has caused them recently to pivot away from loot boxes. They should all still pay for the people whose lives and savings they ruined with their addictive mechanics. They should pay for silencing the people of Hong Kong. They should pay. It is up to us to make them pay their fair share.
Get political, because Activision-Blizzard already proved that the large publishers are political, and their politics of greed puts them squarely on the side of tyrants and oppressors. Remember, they will sell you without a moment of remorse, so show them no mercy.