Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Blizzard as a Political Entity

I've always claimed Blizzard was a Center-Right company with many policies and in-game examples of this stance, but the (most) recent talk of homophobia has me thinking about it again and I wanted to take a look at Blizzard as a Political entity and try to articulate my feelings from having played the game for a number of years.

Full disclosure - I consider myself a fairly progressive individual with very liberal opinions on gay rights, equality for women and minorities, social welfare and a complete separation of church and state. Also, before I get too far down the road with this, I want to set aside the expectation that because this is a "medieval" game, Blizzard gets a pass for doing anything because they're being authentic to an anachronistic setting.

Bullshit.

When you can introduce dragons, magic, motorcycles, planes and tentacle monsters, you divorce yourself from any expectation of representing reality in your playground. And typically, the point of representing an anachronistic culture through art is to illustrate the stark differences between where we are now to what was once the norm. Not to revel in the injustices of the past.

Racism
The most recent blind example of this are the Pygmies in Uldum. You have a squat race of brown people with turbans who speak gibberish and steal from the noble Tol'vir and we're tasked with knocking them around with comical hammers.

As an Indian of Arab descent, I was looking forward to seeing Arabian, African and Central-Asian culture in the game, but I wasn't expecting this.

There are plenty of other example - from cannibalistic Trolls who are influenced from Island culture to the apologist noble-native take on the Tauren, there is a complete lack of clarity or foresight in the design team of how the game appears outside of their bubble.

Homophobia
From the videos posted at BlizzCon last year to the lack of any openly gay characters in the game, to the above-linked history wherein a burgeoning Gay community received negative attention from Blizzard in their attempts to come together and it took public outrage for them to reverse their decisions, we see a company that thinks making gay-jokes is funny.

I'm not suggesting they're homophobic, but I am suggesting that they are insensitive to the way the world appears to gay and gay-friendly people.

Diversity
Of the people who sit on the panels at BlizzCon, how often do we see women or minorities, especially in the upper levels of the design team?

The diversity is just not there, and that's part of the reason why we see the Azeroth the way we do - it's a one-sided view of the world. Their quest-team (from what I could tell of the article posted in the WoW Magazine) is entire male, for example. What would you expect from a team that had no women working in it? I'm not suggesting men can't write well-rounded stories or women-positive quests, but the incentive isn't there especially in a team where no one else might be making an effort of it.

Take this one step further and you can point at all the plate-bikini armor sets, the festival sets that make women look like lingerie models, Achievements that require us to target women and give them Playboy bunny ears.

Torture

There are a number of quests where torture is successfully used to extract information from victims. True, this is a common fantasy trope, but it still leaves one feeling queasy when the target is begging for relief and yet we continue with the torture. So much so that the NPCs suggest this is beyond them and they ask the player to engage in this behavior, as if the developers are chortling at the prospect.

Especially at the time that Wrath came out, Torture was a vital topic of conversation as America itself was dealing with the problem of figuring out where the lines were between interrogation and torture. It was ill-timed, thoughtless, impulsive and unfortunate at best.

Conflict Resolution
Consider the fact that seldom, if ever, do you run into situations where you can reasonably resolve issues in the game. It always comes down to physical conflict. I'm not suggesting Raids involve a riddle contest, or a conversation thread that makes it possible to bypass a boss, I'm talking more in terms of quest design here, and the general theme of the game itself. War is a viable solution to all problems in the game.

Jaina and Thrall have often been the only voices of dissent in the entire setting, and while they might be the protagonists, their hopes are constantly dashed and the conflict continues.

I appreciate that the Horde vs. Alliance conflict is vital for Warcraft, and I'm okay with it, but the level of ridicule and impotence thrown at pacifism in the game is a little strange when you sit back and think on it. At any point politically, you might imagine there is some contingent of a population that is working on peace and appeasement and negotiation. We never see those elements in the game. At least with Cataclysm we're seeing some fall-out in South Shore and Barrens and maybe it's a move in the right direction.



Now.

I don't think anyone at Blizzard is explicitly racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or war-mongering, or pro-torture - but I do think nobody sat down, to look at the races, or the armor, or the quests and thought, "Is this insensitive or offensive to some significant sub-set of our audience?" And that's kind of the point.

When you have millions of people in your audience, you are going to offend someone, that's inevitable, I don't need a squeaky clean game with no possibility for freedom of expression - far from it - I enjoy and consume vast amounts of media that explores inequality.

But really, for a game of Warcraft's size and scope, with the size of their audience, what are they getting in return for the level of offensiveness in the game? Is the latent sexism and racism vital to their storytelling? Is it important to the arc of the expansion? Are these points that Blizzard needs to make and stand behind?

Or is it just a cheap joke for a bunch of guys to laugh about?

2 comments:

  1. It's going to come down to less about what the game is currently and more about who does Blizzard want to be over the next twenty years? In my opinion, there are probably some leaders within the company, or perhaps Activision, who believe Blizzard can aspire to become a true entertainment company and play with the likes of Disney in another twenty years. And if there is one company in this space that has the content and brand positioning to stretch into that arena, it's probably Blizzard. But when you reach into that arena of mainstream entertainment, all of these issues you call out are going to become legitimate concerns that will need to be addressed.

    So again, the question will come down to who does Blizzard want to be? If they don't aspire to reach beyond creating games, then to be honest I could see them continuing to simply make the content they want to make. They're a bit like Ticketmaster or GE right now in that they're the brand of choice for the mainstream and they have little competition rivaling their majority ownership of the marketplace, despite the nitpicking of numbers declining. Like those other companies, Blizzard has trained many of us in their ways so we find it very difficult to adopt new solutions developed by competitors. In those situations, the only thing that could force them to alter their model and approach the content you've highlighted here differently is if another company comes along and disrupts the norm, winning the hearts and minds of the majority.

    And even if those factors presented themselves to push or pull Blizzard to address the current set of issues you've raised, there would still need to be massive cultural change within their organization to enable them to do things differently. It will come down to change management which takes years and truly successful change of that capacity is rarely seen in companies the size of Blizzard.

    Anyway, rambling thoughts...

    -Keel

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  2. Great stuff, thanks for this. :)
    Lal

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