Frost Shock: Activision-Blizzard and How We Discuss Game Companies

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We're used to staring long and hard at serious issues in the games industry. Issues like workplace harassment, far-right political rhetoric on forums, and bullying in the community. However, a major video game publisher supporting an authoritarian government is a new one. Discussion spaces are alight with fury over the recent conduct of Activision-Blizzard, and I have a lot of thoughts on those actions and that discussion, but that's not where I want to begin our story. I want to start somewhere that helps us politically contextualise this situation, and to do that, we need to go all the way back to Asia in the 1800s:

At the end of the First Opium War, a defeated China ceded a largely unoccupied Hong Kong to the British Empire. Britain colonised it and retained control of the region for the following ninety-nine years, eventually releasing it in 1997. Today, the only direct authority over Hong Kong is their own government, and they operate a self-contained economy outside of China's, but that might not make Hong Kong as autonomous as you'd think. It's Hong Kong's Legislative Council that decides the region's laws; they're its equivalent of Congress or Parliament. However, of the seventy seats in the Legislative Council, forty are democratically elected, and the rest are appointed by the industries of Hong Kong from textiles to finance. Anyone in the legislature might belong to a pro-China or pro-Hong Kong party, but despite the people of Hong Kong always giving their majority vote to the pro-Hong Kong parties, the pro-China parties win the elections every time. This is because those industry ambassadors overwhelmingly nail their colours to pro-China groups.

The motive is simple: The industries go wherever the money is, and the profit in the Chinese economy dwarfs what you'd make in the Hong Kong economy. The corporate seats, which make up almost half of the council, therefore, swing to the Chinese side, so you only need a tiny number of pro-China candidates democratically elected, and more than 50% of the seats on the council will be rooting for Beijing. Now, any time the legislature decides a law, the people's will is largely irrelevant; more representatives than not will forward Chinese interests. You get about the same in the election of Hong Kong's leader: the Chief Executive. The Chief Executive is chosen not by the citizenry, but by a committee of 1,200 people, many of which are commercial representatives, who again, bend towards Beijing. The state of the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive elections are scary if you're a Hong Konger because the Chinese government has a history of censoring citizens, limiting access to art and education, disappearing people they deem undesirable, destroying mosques, and other textbook fascism. Even if that weren't true, a lot of Hong Kongers don't want to be just another patch of China because cultural and political divides have left many with a national identity that might intermingle with, but is distinct from China's.

Hong Kong is currently seeing the largest protests against that Chinese influence that there have ever been, with one in June consisting of a record 1.7 million participants: more than a fifth of the population. To put that in perspective, the American equivalent would be 75 million out, making their voices heard on the streets. This is how absolutely Hong Kong believes in rejecting Chinese rule. The Hong Kong government triggered this current wave of protests by proposing a bill which would allow alleged criminals to be flown out to China for trials. No one in Hong Kong wants to be plucked from their country and then tried by that government's biased court system, and they're commendably vocal about it. Hong Kong authorities, however, have been less than sympathetic and have met protest with police brutality while Chief Executive Carrie Lam has taken China's side over that of the dissenters. This is a very delicate standoff where the actions of powerful organisations could help approve further authoritarian politics and police violence. So, it's a big deal when someone does what Activision-Blizzard did on October 8th, 2019.

Upon winning Blizzard Entertainment's annual Hearthstone Grandmasters tournament, Hong Konger Ng Wai "Blitzchung" Chung told his interviewers, "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times!". The publisher went into panic mode, refusing to hand Chung his prize money, banning him from the professional league for one year, and firing two hosts of the official livestream who had nothing to do with the statement. Dedicated fans have widely condemned the firm's response, it's caused sharp intakes of breath outside the gaming community, and it's led to Blizzard employees staging a walkout. Prominent Hearthstone streamers have expressed disapproval of Blizzard's behaviour or even stepped down, while Immutable, a game studio which offered to cover Chung's winnings, has since been hit by a mysterious cyber-attack. The Hearthstone developer later went back on their decision about the cash and reduced Chung's ban time to six months, but doubled-down on their censorship stance. On October 16th, they also decided to ban three U.S. players, GiantDwarf, TJammer, and Xcelsior, for six months, after they held up a sign reading "Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizz".

This is not just a PR catastrophe or a violation of consumer rights. It's not even just screwing over employees: it's enabling state brutality, censorship, and authoritarianism. But this is also a potentially educational crisis; while many gamers deny a link between video games and sociopolitics, even the staunchest sceptics see an example here of how the political circumstances of a country affected a game publisher and how that publisher's actions can determine life in that society. It's more apparent here than it might otherwise because be the disaster is so extreme, and it's always easier to analyse from an external perspective.

I don't expect that everyone who follows this story will instantaneously apply lessons learned here to more subtle and more western controversies about politics and video games, but internalising what went wrong between these players and Activision-Blizzard is a step in the right direction. The problem is some gamers are defending Activision-Blizzard's terrifying actions, criticising them but for the wrong reasons, or not knowing what practical political response might resemble. The publisher defended their punishment of Chung, indicating a clause in the tournament rules which states that:

"Engaging in any act that, in Blizzard's sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player's prize total to $0 USD, in addition to other remedies which may be provided for under the Handbook and Blizzard's Website Terms."

And some bystanders agree. It was in the rulebook that Blizzard could penalise their player over this, so what's all the fuss about? This argument relies either on the idea that ethics are derived solely from laws or whatever's in a company's code of conduct, or that whatever you to do someone is ethical as long as they contractually agreed to it. The former argument is just a roundabout way of stating an appeal to authority. If it was part of the competition rules or the law that Blizzard were allowed to mash anyone into a fine paste at the end of the games, then under this thinking that would be ethical too. But most of us would agree ethics is about not harming people instead of following the guidelines laid out by the most powerful person in the room. And remember, somebody always holds the responsibility for writing the rules or the law.

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In Blizzard's follow-up statement on the debacle, they explain that they fired Chung because it was in the rules to fire Chung, and some community members agree that's a solid defence. However, this framing makes it sound like the rules appeared out of thin air and were forced upon Blizzard, when really, Blizzard came up with those protocols, and so, they're responsible for their content. Saying Chung was terminated because he violated the rules is an incomplete justification of his suspension because it doesn't address why the rules were constructed that way in the first place. If we're analysing the character of the rules, it's hard to get behind any directive that forbids players offending a portion of the public. There are always going to be statements that are ethically important to express that will enrage or frighten some people. Statements like "Trans rights" or "Black lives matter" or "Liberate Hong Kong". Blizzard wrote a script that prohibited phrases which help secure oppressed peoples' liberties, and so, is culpable for the consequences of enforcing that script. That they won't confront the flaws in those rules and are simply relying on the line that they were just doing their job, shows them up as deploying PR spin rather than taking on board the criticism against them.

This where the defence that Chung agreed to that contract comes in. The idea goes that he had every chance to recognise how bad the deal was and back out if he felt uncomfortable with the rules. It's quite like the argument that any unhealthy workplace conditions in the industry should be ignored because the employees consented to work within them. But if the employee has no alternative to a deficient work environment, how can we say they had any choice in ending up in it? If crunch is industry standard, then there's no point telling developers they agreed to crunch by signing up to a crunch-enforcing company; there probably wasn't another company for them to join that wouldn't crunch them, and so, they didn't have a choice over it. In the case of Chung, sure, he entered under the guidelines that Blizzard laid out, but it's not like there's another equivalent Hearthstone tournament that he could have entered that didn't have rules about voicing political opinions.

Blizzard developed Hearthstone and have the rights over it, so they have a steadfast control over its competitive scene. There's a power dynamic in here that often goes unacknowledged by the gaming community. The idea that workers under games studios have complete autonomy when it comes to deciding their labour environment ignores that the developers and publishers are the ones who have the resources, and so, determine who gets paid in the AAA industry and what they have to do to get that money. The companies have the power to dictate the terms employees work on much more than the employees do. For someone like Chung, it's Blizzard's way or the highway. And let's be real: codes of conduct are full of all sorts of pedantic clauses that we don't expect companies to enforce, and we know are thrown in as legal last resorts.

Under Blizzard's "Don't offend anyone" stipulation, they could fire someone for swearing or a woman for leaving her hair uncovered or a person for just being LGBTQIA+. Those would all offend some portion of the public, but the fact that they haven't fired any of the people in those positions is proof that they enforce that law at their discretion. The rule even says that Blizzard has the final say on what counts as defamatory or insulting. So, even if the publisher wasn't responsible for writing their own rules (which they are), when they tell you they had to fire Chung, they're lying. Lastly, even if you think Chung gave valid consent to be suspended from professional Hearthstone, the effects of this decision ripple far beyond him. Blizzard's punishment of pro-Hong Kong speech affects the millions of citizens of that country fighting for their democratic rights, and not one of them signed away their freedoms to a software studio running an online card game.

With any luck, you agree with me that Activision-Blizzard did something beyond the pale here, but it's difficult getting everyone on the same page about why they did it. Some fans lay the blame at the feet of Tencent, a Chinese conglomerate which holds stock in Activision-Blizzard. The Chinese government intervene more directly in the Chinese economy than most western countries do in theirs, and Tencent has been working directly with them to produce what's almost definitely nationalist propaganda. These facts gave rise to the theory that the Chinese government commanded Tencent to command Activision-Blizzard to extinguish the pro-Hong Kong speech in their professional gaming league.

However, Tencent isn't in a position to be pulling any strings within the company: they own only 5% of Activision-Blizzard. Pleasing Tencent may have been a motive in the measures that Activision-Blizzard enacted, but those measures would have been taken by the majority non-Tencent portion of the firm. Additionally, Epic Games took a punt at eating Blizzard's lunch by announcing that they'd never moderate anyone for saying something politically contentious. And you'll never guess who owns 40% of Epic's stock; it's Tencent. That company is not the deciding factor in who is allowing or disallowing advocacy for anti-China speech, and the suggestion that they mind-controlled Activision-Blizzard into banning Chung has more to do with a knee-jerk paranoia that follows all things Chinese than it does any evidence.

Other fans speculate that Activision pressured Blizzard into turning the heat up on their Hearthstone mutineer. The idea harks back to Activision's reputation as one of the most detestable forces in gaming. From the 00s onwards, the publisher put on a non-stop cavalcade of pre-order bonuses, season passes, and microtransactions. They shuttered plenty of beloved studios and eroded the quality of many a series through annualised release schedules. That made them a lot of enemies.

However, eleven years after the Activision-Blizzard merger, the idea that we can treat them as two separate entities is dubious, as is the idea that Blizzard is strictly the "good guys". If Activision is meant to be that much more horrible than Blizzard ever were, then it's not exactly a sign of virtue that they jumped into bed with Activision. This wasn't a deal agreed on uneven ground like the contracts between many employees and game studios, Blizzard saw Activision wringing customers and developers dry, and said: "We want in on that". Not to mention, Blizzard always crunched employees, even pre-merger, and they were happy to avoid billions in tax and lay off a couple of hundred employees alongside Activision, even as the CEO netted tens of millions. There are also gamers out there talking about Blizzard being the devil for fumbled expansion launches or overpromising on games, and that's all a little over the top. But it is fair to say that, for a long time, Blizzard has been happy making other peoples' lives worse for the sake of their business, and I think that's what this is about: business.

We already know why industry would choose authoritarian China over oppressed Hong Kong because we've seen it play out during every election of the Legislative Council. The economic entities side with China because China is where they make more profit. Blizzard, in particular, has a gargantuan market share out there. We've also just talked about how Activision-Blizzard has thrown people under the bus to make it out with a wallet a few millimetres thicker before now, and they wouldn't be the first western organisation to go out of their way to contribute to Chinese censorship and propaganda. Apple, Tik Tok, Disney, Mariott, and countless others have done it, and every time, it's been about cold, hard cash. It makes it all the stranger when some gamers let out a battle cry about us having to stand up against Chinese or communist interests infiltrating our western companies.

This is not a battle of communism vs. capitalism. Whatever it might say on the tin of the Chinese Communist Party, the workers do not directly own China's companies and their operators run them on a for-profit basis. They comprise a state capitalist system which is why you can buy so many "Made in China" products on capitalist consumer markets, and why capitalist entities like Apple and Activision-Blizzard can make a killing on the Chinese markets. The Chinese authorities and the western capitalists are not in competition in this setup: they're in cooperation. This isn't a conflict between different regions of the world or economic systems as much as it's between the economically and politically powerful and the average person.

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All these attempts to blame anyone but Blizzard for this crisis have one thing in common: They reject the concept that there might be intrinsic factors that motivate all AAA game companies to act unethically, concluding that when one does, it must be the fault of some outside corruptive force. It's not on Blizzard that Blizzard joined arms with an authoritarian regime; the liability rests with the rulebook or the law or the Chinese or the communists or Tencent or Activision. But none of those excuses holds water; Blizzard's actions are their own, and we should treat them as such. The gaming community and even the public at large have long held that there are good megacorporations and bad ones, and we just need to support the former. It's why you end up with narratives about Blizzard being on the good side and Activision or Tencent being on the bad side. But I don't know who the mythical "good" huge game companies are.

People used to say it was "Good Guy Valve", even while they monopolised the digital PC marketplace, shovelled loads of bargain bin tat onto their store, and left smaller developers twisting in the wind. Some people say it's Nintendo, even while they've burned down whole archives of fan content and medium history, sometimes to protect IPs they have no intention of publishing for. A few have pegged something morally righteous in Epic Games denouncing moderation of political speech, but we're all familiar with the Fortnite brand child casino and the offices full of people Tim Sweeny is jabbing with a cattle prod to keep it running.

You could say that what we're seeing here is a combination of positive and negative from these companies. That game studios and publishers, just like people, sometimes help and sometimes hurt. Sometimes they distribute free post-release content beyond your wildest dreams, and sometimes they work employees to the point of illness. Sometimes you get a free trading card game where you can unlock booster packs without paying any money, and sometimes you get the endorsement of an authoritarian government. But video games don't decide how much good or bad is done in a society to nearly the extent that taxation, work conditions, or democratic speech do. Blizzard will never be able to make enough internet dwarf cards to balance out the damage of helping curtail basic human rights, the SMGs in CoD will never be cool enough to make Activision-Blizzard jettisoning 800 employees at a time of record revenue look reasonable.

More to the point, the "good" and "bad" we identify here don't come from a wavering morality within these companies; they all come from the same motive. Whether they're developing expansion content, moving revenue off-shore, or protecting their stake in the Chinese market, the firms are in it for the profit. Not that everyone at these companies puts the financial over the ethical or over the quality of the games, far from it. I'm also not suggesting that smaller companies don't push the boat out more when it comes to ethical and charitable action, but titles with high production values and lots of content require astronomical amounts of capital to make. That capital comes from wealthy investors, those investors got wealthy by prioritising return on investment over everything else, including ethics, and when they're the ones funding the projects, they get to decide a lot about how their funding is used. When all those representatives on the Legislative Council sided with Beijing for the money, when we have all these examples of western companies changing their policy so that they can continue to take revenue from China, and when Activision-Blizzard's lootboxes, pre-order bonuses, lay-offs, and tax avoidance have been a product of their will for profit, the idea that there's any mystery over the motivation here melts away. The conspiracies and lists of pure and evil game companies we make are overcomplicating it.

But I think the gaming community obscures the forces that drive companies and their probable future actions by frequently ignoring how they treat anyone but consumers. What publishers do to taxpayers or workers would clue you in to their propensity for swindling people for the sake of their bank balance. However, concern over those issues is often dismissed as being unjustified or irrelevant to the topic of games, with all that "matters" in discussions of the hobby purportedly being the content of the titles. Some of us sleep when executives visit trouble on devs and citizenries as a whole and then leap up in surprise when they predictably do the same thing to their player base.

I think we're also periodically confused because developers and publishers won't always take the shortest path to getting paid. Increasingly, companies release free content, they'll spend money just to protect their image, and they have to provide post-release support for software without charge. However, it's important to understand that for the people in the boardrooms, this is not a deviation from the goal of collecting the largest stack of cash possible; it's simply playing the long game. Consumers are often more likely to purchase products that they know they'll get more use time out of or will prefer to buy from a firm with a better reputation. Companies responding to those consumers urges can provide us with some benefits, but their supposed generosity only lasts as long as it's the most lucrative thing for them to do.

It's essential to remember all this if we want to find effective strategies to combatting Activision-Blizzard's anti-Hong Kong actions or any gross behaviour on the part of companies. When a publisher does something we don't like, the gaming community's counter weapon of choice is outrage, and sometimes that can effect change, but in most cases, it hasn't. Gamers have been angry for a very long time about lootboxes, over-priced DLC, and season passes. However, that hasn't dissuaded the industry from using them because they gain more money from including those features than they lose from whatever negative press fans might generate.

So, in Activision-Blizzard's case, yes, keep making a stink, that's what I'm doing here, but also understand that unless that stink costs them more than what they'd make by bowing to the Chinese government, it's unlikely to fix anything. A much better plan is the boycott of Blizzard products. That still might not cause enough of a hole in their income for them to go back on their decision with Chung and those other community members, but it does hit them where it hurts. And if you want to help beyond interacting with games stores and forums, donate to a charity that can help the people of Hong Kong, write a letter to the Hong Kong government, or if you live in the UK, contact your MP and tell them to stand by Britain's legal commitment to ensure the freedom of Hong Kongers.

I'm sure I'll mention a lot of these points again in the future because I think they're worth repeating, but I'll leave you with this: In the games community, we're often taught to discuss industries and interact with them as consumers. We can buy, talk about our purchasing intentions, and exchange thoughts on the contents of products, but can't accurately put them in all sorts of other contexts, be they political or economic. This perspective means that we can't do much about games except purchase and post, and that's beneficial for a lot of bad actors in the industry because it means we can't accurately analyse toxic practices of labour, representation, or business. It also leave us unequipped to enact change, should those company practices turn south. So when we come across an appalling injustice like Activision-Blizzard banning Ng Wai Chung or a run of the mill frustration like overpriced microtransactions, we tie ourselves in knots trying to figure out what the problem is and what we can do about it. But the problem is that money talks louder than outrage and what we can do about that is boycott the troublemakers and support organisations who put the people on the ground above the investors. Thanks for reading.