02 November, 2019

Blizzard's Next Step

It's important to never move the goalposts. If you have an expectation, write it down. Commit it to text, so that when the time comes, you don't inadvertently change the goalposts after the fact.

I did this with the Blizzard situation. I've thought a lot about this, because it significantly affects my life. The last three weeks of not opening any Blizzard games is the longest period of time that I've not opened a Blizzard game in almost 11 years. I've been a fan of their games since 1998. I've had a longstanding policy of never preordering games from any company with the exception of Blizzard and Nintendo. The amount of trust I've put into Blizzard in my life is significant. So when this whole situation went down, I committed to text exactly what I found wrong about the whole thing.

First, it is important for me to be realistic. Blizzard, as a company, has to be able to move into the Chinese market. To expect otherwise is the same as just giving up on them completely. So I was not expecting them to badmouth China, or to say that the Chinese position is wrong. But I was hoping that they would apologize for handling the situation so poorly. That they would make up for it by committing resources to help those hurt by the protests in Hong Kong, perhaps by donating to a charity working on providing financial assistance to the victims of accident or illness there -- something nonpolitical, which did not take a stance against China, but which actively helped the people in that area to be better off, even though they may be protesting the Chinese government.

This may seem overly specific. Expecting charitable help didn't seem out of the question to me; it seemed like a way that they could try to make amends while simultaneously not speaking out against China. It seemed reasonable. The other part that I wanted was for them to explicitly disavow themselves from NetEase's Weibo post. This was the clencher for me. NetEase made a post that was completely and utterly unacceptable. It was made on official accounts for the game itself. This seems like the kind of thing that Blizzard needs to explicitly disavow, or else it reflects directly upon them as a company.

Well, now Blizzcon is over. J. Allen Brack gave a corporate-sounding apology in the opening ceremony. It isn't great; Jai Dhyani points out that it is missing several aspects of what a genuine apology from a person should look like. But this is a company, not a person. It's still lacking, but not as severely, I think, as Dhyani intimates.

Blizzard explicitly told its employees that they are welcome to participate in the protests. Some did. Blizzard explicitly allowed any and all protests to occur, so long as they didn't harm people. This happened; disruptions occurred, and Blizzard allowed them. No one was kicked out for protest-related activities. Twitch chats were full of pro-Hong Kong sentiment; to my knowledge, the only people banned from chat were the ones who were spamming. No content bans occurred.

Brack also clarified in a PC gamer interview that NetEase is not a Blizzard arm. It is an entirely separate company, and they are not legally allowed to tell them what they can or can't put on NetEase's official social media accounts. When asked about the comments NetEase made, Brack made clear: "We did not authorize it. We did not approve it. We would not have approved it had they asked."

Blizzard has made clear that the pro-China rhetoric on social media is not from them and they are not in favor of it being posted. They have made clear that they are okay with free speech from employees and contractors, so long as it isn't something political during an official stream that's supposed to be about the game. They acknowledged that their original punishments were too severe, and they've reduced them significantly. So what does this mean in terms of what they have yet to properly apologize for?

I think that this means that they've disavowed themselves from some of the more egregious acts. They're corrected on the overly strong punishment. They've said that they cannot legally tell NetEase what to do about the bad social media posts. From my original set goalposts, it is unreasonable to expect them to be explicitly anti-China. So, from my vantage point, they have:
  • Included what the actor did wrong, by clarifying that the pro-China rhetoric cannot legally be changed by them, that the punishments they made were too excessive, and that they failed to properly explain why they had to take a neutral stance on the political issue.
  • Included a causal explanation of the underlying issues that led to the action, by having NetEase be so connected to the Chinese government, unable to tolerate an anti-China stance..
  • Acknowledged the hurt that their action caused, by making several statements to this effect.
  • NOT explained any lessons learned; they appear to instead want to not go into it very deeply. I think this might be okay for a company to do, even if an individual apologizing shouldn't have this as an option.
  • NOT made enough restorative actions to mitigate/compensate for the harms done. They did reduce the punishments to the point that they feel is fair, and I think I'm lightly in agreement with them on the fairness aspect of the punishment. But although NetEase was responsible for the worst of the pro-China sentiment, and although NetEase is a separate company than Blizzard altogether, they are nonetheless linked by the games they publish, and it seems appropriate for Blizzard to compensate for the harms enacted by NetEase in the same way that you or I might purchase carbon credits to compensate for the harms enacted by our airline company. Blizzard has yet to do this.
  • NOT described sufficient actions that address the underlying issue in an attempt to prevent it from recurring in the future. They have taken some actions on this front, by being more clear about when and where their commitment to free speech applies. But there seems to be no way to both sell their games in China while simultaneously limiting the kinds of things that their producer in China will say about things like the Hong Kong protests. This is something Blizzard hasn't done, but which I'm not sure they have the capacity to accomplish at all; thereby meaning that we shouldn't expect them to do what they literally cannot do, and so shouldn't expect them to figure out how to correct the underlying issue.
I want to make it clear that the standard I am giving Blizzard above is a corporate standard. If you're an actual human, you have to make it right, even if you can't. You do as much as you can to make it right, and when you fail, then that's just too bad for you. You separate from the aggrieved and move on. But a company cannot act this way without going out of business. Expecting it to is equivalent to expecting the business to bankrupt itself. This might be a moral hazard, but it is the best we have when it comes to companies, rather than people.

So, in summary: Blizzard has done a lot to make up for this brouhaha. But there are things it has yet to do that it should if it wants to genuinely make up for what has happened. Blizzard still needs to make restorative actions that either mitigate or compensate for the harms done. Looking back at my original goalposts, this makes sense to me. Everything else is either already done by Blizzard or it would be inappropriate to actually expect Blizzard to take those types of actions.

What Blizzard needs to do is to take some kind of charitable action in the Hong Kong region. It doesn't need to be political in nature; that would be inappropriate for a company trying to sell games in the China region. But it does need to help the people of Hong Kong, in way of showing that Blizzard is not against them in the same way that NetEase's Weibo post implies. Blizzard needs to pick a charity that helps to pay for medical expenses, or does something that directly helps the people who may or may not be involved in the Hong Kong protests. And it needs to be a charity that is NOT explicitly pro-China. It must be politically neutral.

If Blizzard does this, then I think that it will have done enough. I'm still not exactly happy with Blizzard. I'm certainly not going to preorder from them anymore. And I might not spend as much as I've already spent on their non-starcraft products. But I may resume spending on my favorite game of all time. And I'll once again look forward to the high-quality games that Blizzard has long been known for. So please, Blizzard: do something to compensate for this situation. Give to a Hong Kong charity. I promise that these goalposts will not be moved.

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