Sophie’s Choice

From the novel and film of the same name, an impossibly difficult choice, especially when forced onto someone. The choice is between two unbearable options, and it’s essentially a no-win situation.



WoW culture received a shock this week in the form of a scathingly critical article on Polygon that pointed out what we had all seen and chose to ignore: Rob Pardo, one of the senior seniors at Blizzard (("Chief Creative Officer", which implies a lot of responsibility for the way things go at Blizzard.)), stating in a talk at MIT that Blizz just didn’t see that it was Blizz’ place to be all that much of an exemplar to people with regards to socially progressive topics.

I wouldn’t say that’s really a value for us. It’s not something that we’re against either, but it’s just not something that’s … something we’re trying to actively do.

— Rob Pardo

In the an article on Rock Paper Shotgun, Harper points out Dustin Browder ((Game Director on Heroes of the Storm)) arguing that Blizzard is "[…] not running for President. We’re not sending a message. No one should look to our game for that."

RPS countered, "let people have fun in an environment where they can feel awesome without being weirded out or even objectified."  to which Browder countered ((I swear before the Titans, this is a direct quote.)),

"Uh-huh. Cool. Totally."

— Dustin Browder, master of artful dodges

All this plays eerily like Nintendo’s earlier comments regarding their game Tomodachi Life, in which relationships are possible, but not if you’re gay. They apologize for this, but state

The relationship options in the game represent a playful alternate world rather than a real-life simulation.  We hope that all of our fans will see that Tomodachi Life was intended to be a whimsical and quirky game, and that we were absolutely not trying to provide social commentary.

Eerie, because it seems like Blizz is responding to some sort of game developer culture dog whistle here.

All about framing

In an earlier tech scandal this year, Mozilla Corp., better known for browsers than politics, hired a vocally anti-gay CEO, who stepped down a few days later after talk of boycotts, protests, and other general discontent.  At the time, Mozilla announced his departure along side a statement that it was "hard to balance free speech and equality".

Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.

This has become a popular idiom as of late; getting ahead of the reader and trying to force the reader to make a decision that they don’t have to make.  In the case of Mozilla, they try to make it so that you can only have equality or free speech.  But the fact was, nobody’s free speech was at risk here.  They made the decision to hire a known homophobe.  But they were unprepared to accept the consequences of their actions. The REAL choice was whether or not to stand by their choice, and Eich took the choice out of their hands ((Arguably, they could have rejected his resignation, so they DID make a choice.)).

Pardo and Browder both want to do the same; present their decisions as a choice between having fun, and making a "statement" about social issues.

The problem is, of course, that nobody asked them to make that choice.  They chose to force that choice.

All about Inclusion

A few years ago, Blizzard muckety and general brodawg Chris Metzen ((Senior Vice President, Story and Franchise Development)) got up in front of Blizzcon and made a speech about what "Geek is". Among them:

  • Transformers
  • Ten-sided dice
  • Conan the Barbarian
  • Captain America
  • Star Wars
  • G. I. Joe
  • Batman ((At this point, if you’re asking "Where’s Wonder Woman?", I would not be surprised. HMMMMM.))
  • Doom
  • EQ  ((Chill out. this is where we came from. It’s legit.))
  • LotR

Okay, more or less on track. But the thing he missed, the thing he didn’t say, that "Geek is" inclusive.  Real, true geeks welcome all into the fold that live by our code. We don’t care if you’re man, woman, child, elder, Eldar, gay, trans* ((And the Facebook-sized gaggle of terms that goes with.)), country, western, Coke, or Pepsi. 

If you’ve felt more at home in a library than a soccer pitch, we feel you.

If you’ve stood in line in the rain for a Harry Potter ticket, we get you.

And if you’ve ever felt excluded because what other people like makes you feel sad or weirded out or uncomfortable – we get you.  We accept you.

Because GEEK IS … inclusive.

And I imagine Metzen left that out for at least two reasons.

  1. He – and the rest of his dawgs ((Okay, I hate that term, I hate applying labels as some form of obscure shorthand that is as exclusionary as the thing it derides.  But dawg … seems to fit.)) – don’t get that. Don’t understand that.
  2. His company would not be able to deliver on that.

This is not new. This is not sudden. This is baked in to the corporate culture.  If you don’t fit their mold, it’s okay if you want to hang out, but if you don’t feel comfortable in their sandbox, they don’t care. Worse than that, they want you to shut up about it.

"Women are okay, I guess. Some of my best friends are women. But this is a boy’s trip. So if they’re not really cool with that, that’s just too bad. We’re not trying to make a social statement here."

A Crisis of Conscience

WoW is in crisis. It’s a crisis that nobody talks about.

It’s not that the alpha isn’t ready to go or that raiders are feeling shafted or that there have been x number of days since the last major content patch.

The crisis is the wave of people that are leaving because they no longer feel like they belong in this game.  Every time Blizzard reaffirms this, more leave.

WoW has a unique place in this kind of conundrum.

On the one hand there is a beautiful, wonderful community of bloggers and tweeters and forum posters and such that are supportive, informative, and delightful to be around.  On the other hand, there is this seemingly toxic corporate culture that sees no profit from making the game friendly to over half the people in the world.  It’s hard to decide between the two.

For a long time, many of us have avoided deciding.

But more and more are deciding. Many major names in WoW blogging have departed lately, and they have stated this toxicity as the reason why. Not all of them are women or LGBT – some are simply sympathetic to the cause, and are leaving in a show of solidarity.

It’s a quiet crisis. We rarely speak of it. Surely, you will not see stalwarts in the WoW community like WoW Insider or WoWHead or MMO Champion reporting on it, because they know better than to antagonize the golden goose too much (But kudos to Matt Rossi for at least addressing the issue behind it, not something I would have expected to see from an AoL property.).  Note to said stalwarts: Reporting on this sort of thing is not the same as taking sides – unless, perhaps, Blizzard have made it clear that any mention of it is antagonistic to them. Is it?  I have no visibility to it. There is no transparency AT ALL.

But the crisis exists, nevertheless.

And maybe we should make it worse.

Making it an issue

People like Rob Pardo and Chris Metzen are not going to take a threat of financial loss that seriously unless their board beats them up.  You can’t really get their attention that way.  They hired somebody else to worry about that.  Someone to "be the grown-ups" ((This is virtually verbatim from the 20th anniversary tapes.)) so they could go on being big overgrown kids.

No, what Rob and Chris want more than anything is for you to think they’re cool. They have that word tatoo’d on their tongues. They say it over and over again, like a mantra. Even Greg Street drank that kool-aid.  Cool. Cool. CoolCoolCool Coooooooooooooooool.

So kick ’em in the cool gland. If you have a voice, make it heard.  If you decided to unsubscribe, make it clear when you do that you feel that Chris and Rob and Samwise are really uncool people with uncool attitudes towards women and LGBTs and the like. Explain to them that you abhor their attitudes.  Tell ’em to get sensitivity training or something. Tell ’em to grow up a little (but not too much).

And maybe if enough people iterate on that, they’ll Get It.

I’m not holding my breath. Because entitled schmucks never really Get It until the world crashes down around them, and then they’re more likely to blame everyone else. ((See: "Affluenza".))

Making it Personal

Which brings me to me.

I haven’t played the game in days, ever since this came to light. This incident has poisoned the well, soured the taste to the point where I just can’t ignore this issue any more.

I said in the past that if they showed no progress on this issue, I’d drop my subscription. The fact that I’ve written on this topic before, multiple times, is evidence enough that the problem is baked in to their culture.  Last time, in the MoP lead-up, Metzen at least made noises like they were going to try to improve. This time, they’re actually regressing, trying to disavow any responsibility for the effects their culture has on the product. I see little hope of improvement.

I have a couple of weeks left on my subscription, so I have some time to ponder this.  And that’s my difficult choice – whether to implicitly underwrite a developer’s toxic culture which chooses to ignore or alienate a bunch of my friends, or to turn my back on a number of friends that are still doggedly sticking around – though far fewer than there used to be – and cast myself into the void, to land I know not where.

While nowhere near the eponymous choice’s difficulty, it’s still a poser.

Well, Wildstar opens in a week.  Maybe that’ll tide me over until Elite.

Posted on May 25, 2014, in Blizzard, Blogosphereic echo chamber, Broken promises and shattered dreams, Geek culture, Life Imitates WoW. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. It’s not quite clear whether you are applying Sophie’s Choice to what Blizz/Nintendo/Mozilla are trying to do, or to what players are having to deal with. My Sophie’s Choice has been between supporting that toxic culture that is doing its best to keep it’s head in the sand, if not outright stating that they won’t change, and cutting ties with friends made in-game – friends who are in too deep to leave now. Either option is horrible. It sucks.


  2. Nice read, as always. I really hate the supposed dichotomy between “fun” and “diverse.” It does not exist. In reality, it would cost Blizzard next to nothing to expand the inclusiveness of WoW. Hire one full time game designer to review matters and make suggestions, and the issue could go away. You know, have someone whose job it would be to say things like, “Maybe we should have at least one prominent female in this expansion.” Then listen to the person and implement it.

    I do think that LGBT is trickier for a game like this because they do not do much in-game to get into the personal lives of the characters, and you cannot (without using offensive stereotypes) look at an in-game model and tell whether the character is gay or straight like you can tell whether someone is male or female. On the other hand, you could have a quest where you must rescue someone’s beloved (been done many times) and have the beloved turn out to be the same sex. A few minor things like that, handled well, could do wonders for the game.

    I don’t think current Blizzard is equipped to insert LGBT content in a tasteful manner. Again, however, one full time salary and actually listening to that person could probably get it done.


    • @Yngwe,

      I don’t think I’m asking for them to go out of their way to explore the sexuality of their characters. All anyone’s really asking for at this point is for them to stop going out of their way to make them feel unwanted in the game. The whole “Corpsegrinder” incident being one of those. And then there was the matter of the poor little girl panda trapped by the angry bunnies that you had to rescue. “You don’t want to know what they wanted me to do with these carrots!” – in-game rape triggers, anyone?

      Representation of LGBT people in-game really isn’t too appropriate, you’re right, since this isn’t a game about exploring sexuality – though there have been a few cases where it was brought to light, especially for laughts (the guy belf in the “punch Deathwing” quest line, the female night elf guards that nonverbally flirted with each other in Auberdine, etc).

      The case of gender representation is another matter, since it’s an overt and obvious part of a character’s model. I’m somewhat less optimistic about this than in the past. They’ve fell over this same problem several times in a row. Any management team with half a brain would have at least hired a consultant to figure out what the hell their problem is. But that requires them to care, and recent comments seem to indicate that they have decided to not care at all.


      • I also look at this through the lens of the recent news stories about the new “black Spider-Man.” I remember one fairly prominent African American comic creator talking about how there were very few black superheroes when he was growing up, which meant few that looked like him and shared his life experiences. In other words, few that he could relate to.

        I guess my point is that a little more richness in the (more prominent) NPCs in-game could make the virtual world as diverse as the real world and go a long way to making people feel more included in that world. That would not be too difficult to achieve. Obviously, the snafus outside the game need to be remedied as well.


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