The #ActiBlizzWalkout and Reconciling Art and Artist

Content warning – this post deals with sexual harassment and abuse, issues of inequality, and also briefly includes discussion of death, murder, and suicide.

Yesterday (okay, it was yesterday when I started writing this!) was the Activision Blizzard walkout, with employees taking the day off to protest for specific improvements for working conditions. They centered on 4 demands to improve the environment within the company, which I’ve included here:

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The day of the walkout, there was a lot of news and activity. The night before, Activision-Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick posted a note that was public through their investor portal and sent to all employees, calling the initial response to the state of California’s lawsuit “tone deaf.” The crowd outside Blizzard HQ in Irvine was pretty large, with over 1,000 employees, past and present, there to demand change. The same day, Kotaku posted a bombshell report – a social media post from Alex Afrasiabi from 2013’s Blizzcon, showing a group chat with himself, Dave Kosak, Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street, Jesse McCree, and Cory Stockton all discussing the now-infamous “Cosby Suite” through a group chat entitled “BlizzCon Cosby Crew.” The group chat is fairly damning – Dave Kosak saying he was “gathering the hot chixx for the Coz” while the others referenced Alex marrying them, which McCree corrected to “fuck.” There was also a photo of the men named above plus Josh Mosquiera, Jonathan Lecraft, and Paul Cazarez – all men who remain in the industry, all of whom were holding up a large, framed photo of Bill Cosby.

Throughout the day, things got worse. Greg Street posted a half-assed apology, and both himself and Josh Mosquiera leaned on the idea that somehow, no one knew about Cosby’s allegations in 2013, despite the fact that they were an open secret for years, stretched back as early as the 1960s, and both men plus some others leaned on the idea that the room was called the “Cosby Suite” because it had ugly carpet like one of his signature sweaters, and not the other thing. Street’s tweets (a rhyme!) on the matter also tried to paint Kosak’s “hot chixx” as Kosak’s wife and a friend (in context, that sounds…worse, somehow) while claiming he regretted inaction on the gross nature of the group chat. By the end of yesterday, there was a feeling of hope – my blog Twitter was covered in blue heart emojis, blue profile pictures, and messages of hope for a better tomorrow. At the same time, however, the shadow of the news loomed – what was easy to lodge on a single named employee in Afrasiabi, a single leader in Brack, and an unnamed supervisor, was instead shotgunned out, fanning across the breadth of the WoW team and including some individuals still there to this day, as well as the executive producer of Riot’s unnamed upcoming MMO.

The truth is that this is likely to get worse before it gets better, as more people are named, more employees past and present are emboldened to tell their stories, and the unsavory details of decades of debauchery begin to leak from the once-guarded Blizzard.

I wanted to start with these details with minimal editorializing because I believe it is important to center the victims in this story. Blizzard is a troubled developer, putting it mildly, but there are literally thousands there fighting for change, and their action is starting a chain reaction, as Ubisoft employees cosigned onto the ABK employee letter and the issue has brought renewed attention to issues with game industry employment, like forced arbitration clauses which push employees away from normal legal channels with the sole intent of protecting the company. While the released details from the newest Kotaku story and the responses prompted by it have a lot of people feeling low, there is still reason to believe that the employees will fight their damnedest for the change the industry needs.

And ultimately, the world needs this change too. A lot of people will say things like “quotas are bullshit” without then questioning why a company hiring the best talent could only have 1 in 5 employees be women when that doesn’t match with rates in software development, art, or interrelated disciplines. A lot of people will cry about “SJW’s” ruining things (my rule: if someone ever says SJW unironically, they suck ass) despite not attempting to understand how the current order of things is actively worse. Across all sectors and the world, there is a problem with equality still to this day, and we owe it to ourselves and the people the status quo harms to question, to challenge, and to push for changes. However, just because the scale of the problem is so large and widespread does not mean that there isn’t value to be had in pushing for change in our smaller corners, to set precedents and fight for something worth having.

The developers in the walkout provided a list of organizations that they support, and I’ve embedded a tweet below with that information if you’d like to support any of them in solidarity with the developers.

I wanted to lead with all of that first, because the back half of this post is going to be editorial from me about my experiences and thoughts on it, but the victims and courageous employees leading the charge deserve the first consideration. Please, if you take nothing else from this post, support one of the listed orgs, listen to their concerns, read the reports and understand the severity of the problem. What I’m going to share is of relatively little consequence in comparison. Having said that, I had a lot, a lot of thoughts in my mind about this whole issue, and now that the fact-sharing from my first post is done, I wanted to share them. Hopefully, it helps if your brain is wracked by this like mine is.

My Wednesday

I participated in the walkout by not logging into any ABK software or sites for 24 hours, not the Battle.net launcher, no Steam versions of Activision games, nothing. There were virtual walkouts in Oribos and other ways to show solidarity, all of which were wildly popular – I saw lots of screenshots of people mounted outside of Oribos doing sit-ins, and saw lots of people discussing the positive energy of the idea.

When the Kotaku story came out, it felt pretty bad. I saw a lot of people participating in the walkout discussing it – it had brought back bad memories, brought out a new round of stories, and the silence from many of the men named in the new article was deafening, such that a few put out mealy-mouthed, half-assed apologies and blog posts making excuses about “not knowing about the Cosby allegations” or “oh it wasn’t named for that” and the like.

As a longtime Blizzard and WoW fan, it stung. I’ll discuss why that was later in more details, but man, it was pretty awful to read. It brought to mind a very similar set of emotions and understandings that I have from another hobby…

Separate the Art from the Artist and the Unlikely Pro Wrestling Connection

Oh yeah, here we go, a staple on this blog – more unlikely ties between WoW and pro wrestling, let’s fucking go!

If you’re a long-time reader here, you might have gotten the impression that I’m a pretty big pro-wrestling fan. Watched it most of my life, tried briefly to do it (it turns out that even after 8 months of getting into the best shape of my life, it was still really fucking hard and I was dying the day after my first session in the ring!), and I sometimes write about it here. Being a pro-wrestling fan is all about the art of compromise and separation of the art from the artist.

Most wrestlers, most wrestling companies, and most people that orbit inside the industry of pro wrestling are pretty awful! That has gotten better over time, but the time periods most people would be aware of wrestling as a mainstream entertainment medium were chock full of awful people with shitty beliefs and practices. Hulk Hogan was a wrestling god and one of the reasons it went mainstream in the 1980s, but he’s also a terribly racist man who used his political clout in wrestling to push down other performers and squashed Jesse “The Body” Ventura’s attempt at organizing a union, which would have led to a lot of reforms that wrestlers in that era especially needed. Most wrestlers from the 80s and 90s were pillheads and/or heavy drinkers, a lot of that due to the road schedule of the business and the severe wear and tear on their bodies. So very many wrestlers of that era died prior to 40, with a larger-than-average number dying prior to age 50, then 60, and several even dying before 30. The largest promotion in the world, WWE, is run by a selfish old man named Vince McMahon, who is the driving creative force behind what happens or doesn’t happen on TV, and often changes his mind based on a whim and can be unnecessarily cruel. When asked about why wrestlers die earlier on average and if he bears any responsibility for that, he denied it flatly while swatting papers out of the hands of the reporter asking him the question.

The business had trainers like women’s wrestler The Fabulous Moolah, who would train girls to lose to her in different territories, sending girls out to wrestle but then also prostituting them, such that when WWE tried to create a Fabulous Moolah Memorial Battle Royal at Wrestlemania 34 in 2018, fans complained to event sponsor Snickers until they removed her name from it.

As a child, one of my absolute favorite wrestlers was Chris Benoit. I was watching WCW in the mid-nineties with my father when he debuted in the US, and followed his career. I watched Wrestlemania XX in 2004 live, where he won the World Heavyweight Championship at Madison Square Garden, with his friend Eddie Guerrero as the WWE Champion. Both embraced, tears flowing, as confetti filled the building – it was a genuinely touching moment.

The next year, Eddie Guerrero died at age 38 from acute heart failure. He had several addiction problems, had overcome them, and was on a good track, but that life caught up with him. In 2007, Chris Benoit then murdered his youngest son and wife before killing himself.

Chris Benoit was a great wrestler and easy to root for, but while I can watch Hulk Hogan matches, I cannot watch Chris Benoit matches. I never made any grand proclamation that I wouldn’t, mind you – but I had held Benoit in high esteem and just seeing him left me with this uneasy feeling. I haven’t watched a single match of his since 2007.

For Hulk Hogan, for the WWE as a whole, I can often separate the art from the artist – be entertained by the character of Hulk Hogan while knowing that Terry Bollea is a despicable human being with beliefs far away from my own. Chris Benoit, however…it’s tough.

That leads me to my actual point, which is…

I Don’t Know If I Can Separate Art from Artist in World of Warcraft Because I Loved Blizzard

This is the real crux of my dilemma in this whole thing.

Yes, a lot of the world has this problem. Yes, other gaming companies who make things I enjoy greatly have the very same problem. In the case of a Square Enix, I don’t love that company. I find them often quite greedy, often attempting to sail on their back catalog to success with remasters, remakes, and rereleases. When they make a good game, it’s a fun surprise and I have no attachment to it. I have some attachment to the Final Fantasy XIV team and to Yoshi P as the game director, but at the same time, I don’t think he’s a paragon of virtue. He’s just a really damn good game designer and director who has a clear artistic vision and respect for his players, which are values he seems to imprint on the team. If Yoshi P were implicated in a sexual harassment lawsuit, I’d be pretty sad, but at the same time, my appreciation for him is recent and sort-of unformed – I could easily pivot away from liking him while liking FFXIV.

Blizzard, on the other hand, was an entity I loved.

The thing that make this so hard for me as a fan is that I genuinely loved Blizzard Entertainment. I’ve been playing their games for over two decades, and put more hours into things they’ve made than anything else on the planet or in my life, short of maybe sleeping. I’ve been at every Blizzcon in-person save for three, and I was at the very first one and what is, to date, the last in-person one. Blizzard is the only game studio I’ve applied to work at multiple times, that led me to write about my gameplay (and now here we are), that I made direct effort to visit and tour, and I know the developers responsible for WoW off the top of my head more than I could name the people behind any other creative product I’ve consumed in my life. I’ve engaged with all of Blizzard’s franchises on some level, and I have well over 100 hours in each Starcraft title, each Diablo since 2, Warcraft III, and of course, literal years of actual playtime in World of Warcraft.

Blizzard’s games shaped me as a person in some ways, and I haven’t been shy to discuss that here in the past. Skills I’ve learned from playing their games have helped me personally and professionally and helped build the person that I am today, and I say that in a positive way and not as a self-own. I nearly went back to college to build my resume for Blizzard. As my courage and extroversion as a person grew, I went to Blizzcon and sought out developers to talk to and meet, and I met a lot of them – including folks in the stories around the harassment issues.

I’ve never met YoshiP, and my investment in him as a personality is absent any expectation that he’s a nice or kind person. He’s a taskmaster who knows what needs to be done and has sharpened his team, and I respect that about him, but there’s no hero worship there. I did look up to Chris Metzen, to Mike Morhaime, to Alex Afrasiabi (he always came across as a dick, but he was out there writing for the defining MMO in the mainstream), to Greg Street, to Dave Kosak, and even sometimes to J Allen Brack. They spoke publicly to this ideal that was grandiose and easy to wrap yourself in – that games could be home, that Blizzcon was a gathering of friends, that Blizzard was a family, and that games could shape and change the world. I believed in those ideals – at times in my life, they might have been all I had. I looked forward to Blizzcon, to going with my friends, but even then, I would spend more time away from my friends, meeting new people, drinking and laughing with strangers. I got to spend 20 minutes chatting with dungeon designers on WoW about a boss design. I played a few board games with the Con Before the Storm leadership team, people I had never met before. I ran into another group of strangers one year that was playing Cards Against Humanity and offered me a slice of pizza and a seat at the table, and I had a lot of fun with them. I kept going back for more because every year, it gave me this fulfillment that was so hard to find in normal life. Every year, the parting was sorrowful to a point, because it meant going back to reality – a less welcoming prospect.

But now, all I can find myself thinking is what horrific things might have happened to some of the people I met. Who might have harassed the women at the CAH table? Did my photo with Afrasiabi stop him for a moment from harassing or groping a female coworker lower in the company than him (if so, good!)? What things did I turn a blind eye to because the victims and targets were going along to get along?

The responses have been particularly telling, and particularly crushing. Greg Street is someone I really thought had a great outlook on the MMO genre and a good approach to inclusion and working with players, and I’ve written as much – so it bothered me greatly to see that his defense of his inclusion in the Kotaku expose was “the Cosby Suite was the green room and I never saw anything bad there, “oh, we didn’t even know Cosby had such allegations in 2013,” and “this chat looks bad, but there’s an explanation!(which implies heinous stuff even still!)” I was so disappointed and let down by seeing that, because I genuinely respected Ghostcrawler and I often thought he got dealt a bad hand by players. Knowing this, seeing this now, however, I can’t help but feel overwhelmingly naïve – stupid, even – to have thought he was anything good. I’ve been contemplating applying to the Riot MMO team when he mentioned on Twitter that the team was going to be looking for some break-in spots for new-to-design employees, but now, how could I even think of it? I think J Allen Brack is sort of tone-deaf and aloof in a bad way, but he was also a guiding hand on WoW in its best years and that counted for something in my book. But he’s an enabler, that much is clear from the initial lawsuit, and his response to employees attempts to gloss-over and ignore that completely! I have similar opinions on so many of the people who are now tied to this – and it makes me a little sick, frankly – because I respected them and thought they must be good people because they did good work.

Blizzard as a company has promoted this for years – the LFG video they made a few years ago, the Blizzard 25 panel and discussion, the way they call Blizzcon “home” and refer to a “family.” There is such a strong, tribal culture around Blizzard games, using factions and character allegiances to strike bonds that persist, both with the games but also with social networks around them. WoW is a game, but it is also a virtual world full of nooks and crannies made by people – people who Blizzard is all-too-willing to tell me are just like me. They’re a company for the nerds – “Geek Is!” – and all of that, and I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that a company full of nerds might have a few malcontents with misogynistic tendencies among them, but I wanted to believe. At a variety of times in my life where I didn’t have much, Blizzard games gave me things I needed. A connection to my friends, hope that better times would come, and a sense of belonging – and I was perhaps too eager to consume those ideas as presented by Blizzard, but I think a lot of us were. A lot of the hurt, a lot of the feelings of betrayal that I’ve seen from others all seems to come from a similar place – that Blizzard games, Blizzard’s community, and gatherings like Blizzcon, guilds, or groups were all a well-built home that you could live in and make your own.

It makes it really, really hard to play World of Warcraft right now, to look forward to Diablo II Resurrected, and to want to write normal WoW posts.

On the one hand, I am still having fun with Shadowlands. In this blogging space and community, I am often a contrarian on this point, but I’ve had fun in Shadowlands and would rate it reasonably up my stack ranking of WoW expansions. WoW is comfort for me, it is a thing I can do almost passively while watching YouTube videos or Twitch streams, and I can talk over it and through it as I play most modes of content. I’ve topped DPS meters in dungeons while spending most of the run talking to my wife, and that kind of play helps make WoW stick for me. It’s a game that demands attention, but it also is something that I can play and engage with fully on my own terms. As a matter of fact, if I didn’t have the turmoil and depression that leaving my guild has created for me, I’d probably still be subscribed without as much of a question.

On the other hand, so much of my experience with WoW feels…tainted, now. The main story of the game at the moment is an awful story of a clueless woman being led down a primrose path, who is presented in very dissonant ways – smart and savvy, motivated to her own ends, but also fucking clueless and unwilling to see what is right before her eyes – and, like, that story reeks of being written or shaped by an abusive dickhead who sees women as less-than. The overwhelming arc of the lore is centered on “great man” stories, and while inclusion in the lore has gotten better over time, it isn’t quite there yet. I think the lore about Pelagos being transgender is fantastic and such a great touch, even if it is clear Blizzard put a lot of work into shuffling that off where you’d have to go looking for it in-game, because if some GamerGate neckbeard asshole had to read it as a part of the main lore, oh god forbid, not politics (read as: things I don’t like)! There have been stronger women written into the story, like the Proudmoores, Talanji, and a lot of others, even if the stink of the lead women in the story seeps in and makes the overall balance still feel very iffy.

A lot of my challenge is that so much of the game has been shaped by so many people who either harassed or enabled harassment that it feels sort-of…gross, in a way, to even engage with the game. Very few individual elements of the game are signed as to who made them, so it leaves you to wonder who shaped what, and when the harasser is as high-profile as Alex Afrasiabi, then you know that large swathes of the game have been shaped by a person who finds that kind of thing okay, who did it without repercussions, and was surrounded by people who were either harassed, enabling it, or turning a blind eye to it. It makes so much of Blizzard’s bold declarations of diverse values obviously hollow, and it makes you wonder if the creative process behind some of the better representative characters was done in a tokenizing manner. I’d love to be able to assume good faith and intent, because several of these character stories are well done (I’m on the record as a BfA Jaina fan, so yeah!), but at the same time, knowing who is involved with the creative process makes it painfully obvious how side-story so many of these good tales were, while the lore’s center is on Sylvanas and Tyrande, both of whom are far too often portrayed in a way that aligns with the types of stereotypes about women that a sexual harasser would have!

My Future in WoW

So, at the end of all of this, I’m left with a question.

Do I still play WoW, or not?

And, well…I don’t know.

Right now, a lot of why I am unsubbed and counting the days until I can no longer play is because of outside factors to all of this – my guild departure, my conflicted feelings about raiding outside of the environment of my guild, and the fact that my main goal for the 9.1 season outside of a guild, Keystone Master for Shadowlands Season 2, is something I already obtained. At the same time, however, there’s a degree of power I feel to help influence change by remaining unsubscribed and withholding my entertainment dollars until change is promised to a satisfactory degree.

But a lot of the developers who have been harassed and who are still at Blizzard disagree with that, and have indicated that they want people to remain subscribed and to keep playing. They’ve shared interesting stories about showing loved ones that bit of questing they worked on, about the pride they feel in their work and how they love to see players engage sincerely with it. It’s a mess, because the message you might want to send and the people you want to target with an unsubscribe are, in almost all scenarios, the ones least likely to be affected. If WoW as a business falls down, J Allen Brack isn’t leaving, some junior developer with tenure in a high pay band for that job role is gone. That person is likely to be a minority and/or woman that is being held down at that rank because of sexist or racist bullshit that prevents their skills and effort from being recognized. All of it is hypothetical, of course – we have no way of knowing how our inputs into the massive ecosystem that is WoW will be received, and there are a lot of different people offering different inputs that have the same action but vastly different reasoning behind them.

I think that consumer choice is largely a personal one. I totally get both sides – I don’t feel great that Blizzard has so much of the entertainment money I’ve spent over the last 16 years, and even were I to return to the game, I’m not sure I could ever go to another Blizzcon, knowing now what we know. At the same time, I get wanting to support the developers that do remain and their fight for positive change, and I completely get that Azeroth is a lot of things to a lot of people – that it is therapy, release, relief, fun, social time, and more – and it covers such a wide gamut of things that people use it as a vessel for, more than just the designed content as presented by Blizzard.

In the end, I think the choice I’ll make is largely the same one I was planning on when I cancelled my subscription a day before the news of the lawsuit broke – that a month away personally is good for me, because engaging with the game has been a sore spot as much as it has brought me joy over the last month (and I’ll detail that more in a post this weekend), but it does still mostly bring me joy, and I think some of the issues I’ve been having personally are fixable, while I also find myself compelled by the direct words of several harassed developers that playing and supporting their work is still a valuable and viable way to provide them security – to ensure their jobs remain necessary while they fight for the systemic change they need to carry on.

I don’t and will never begrudge anyone for making the choices they feel they must. If you cannot play WoW anymore, or need a long break from the game – I completely get it. I feel very icked out by the incidents described over the last week and change, and I cannot comprehend how it must feel for a woman and/or minority to read these stories and be able to relate them to things they’ve experienced. At the same time, if ABK games give you some measure of peace, stability, or provide something you feel is missing in your life, I get that too. I’ve often felt the same, as many of the posts on this site are testament to.

I just wish that feeling wasn’t stained with all of this, and the things still to come that will likely only make that feeling worse.

5 thoughts on “The #ActiBlizzWalkout and Reconciling Art and Artist

  1. I can actually believe the excuse that the Cosby name was originally meant to be innocuous, partly because not everyone follows celebrity news all the time, but more importantly because nobody thinks of themselves as being bad when they do stuff like that. So they wouldn’t have thought: “We’ll be doing evil rapey things in here, so let’s name the room after an evil rapey guy, hehe!” That doesn’t make sense. So I can totally buy the idea that it was originally meant to be an innocent joke, yet when Cosby’s reputation went down the crapper, and knowing what people got up to in that room, others would have looked at it and gone “well, that makes bloody sense, how gross”. I don’t think that really detracts from the allegations.

    I think your breakdown of the difference emotional investment makes when it comes to separating the art from the artist is very good here. It’s why my enjoyment of WoW hasn’t really been impacted much… there’ve been times when I loved it, but whatever personal bond I may have felt with the developers was severed more than a decade ago. On the other hand as an example I’m not sure I’ll ever want to re-read the Harry Potter books… while I can see them still being enjoyable to kids these days, for me the knowledge of how much the author has gone off the deep end would just overshadow any enjoyment. It’s really a very personal thing, and I think we can all agree that the behaviour described in the lawsuit is bad without having a go at anyone for still thinking that WoW is a fun game.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The first few times something happened like this @ blizz, it hit me hard. I recall one time I didn’t log in for weeks (I think that was the Corpsegrinder incident, and the tone-deafness of the response from blizz).

    At this point, I’ve reconciled myself with the fact that shitty people run the companies that make games I like, and if I haven’t heard anything about it, it’s probably just because the penny hasn’t dropped yet. Yes, I do mean FF as well. If I told what I knew about Nintendo, you’d blow a circuit. It’s just a mess no matter where you look.

    So I’ve focused on helping those that are trying in good faith to improve the system from within. Pushing for unionization. Supporting the actual creators with signs of solidarity. Because PURE isn’t something we’re going to see, especially if we don’t try to help.

    That said, I’m taking a break from regular play as well. Faffing about with some 4X games, maybe break out the joystick and go for a spin in my Cobra Mk IV. Lots to think about, lots to do.

    There are a lot of people dropping their subs and not coming back. They really screwed the pooch on this one.

    Liked by 1 person

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