(The meme intro photo is a palate cleanser, you’ll likely want it at some point.)
I want to start this post off with a request. The workers at Activision-Blizzard-King (going to use ABK the rest of the post because oof that’s a lot to type) are working to attempt to unionize and building a strike fund via GoFundMe to support employees in a potential labor action. If you’ve enjoyed their work, I would strongly recommend giving them a look and any support you can swing, as the potential actions ABK would be likely to take in a labor action could be very impactful on the people who actually make the games we enjoy. Their strike fund is here.
With that said, let’s discuss the shitshow going on with the lawsuits aimed at ABK’s employment practices.
The biggest update to make in this post is a pretty bad one, all told. A federal judge has determined that the California DFEH cannot intervene in the settlement ABK has made with the Federal EEOC over their discriminatory employment practices and cases of harassment. This likely, but not yet assuredly, clears the way for the $18 million settlement offer made late in the summer to stick, a pitiful amount compared to what the company makes even in just a month. I am not a lawyer and so I’ll avoid making any conclusions about what the long-term implications are of this, but in the legal battle, it seems like an all-too-common occurrence in the US – a company does heinous shit and gets away with it with what amounts to a slap on the wrist in monetary penalty that barely grazes a single-digit percentage of even quarterly revenue. It’s hard to look at it as anything of a victory, and that isn’t to say that the DFEH could have done much better either – in fact, that agency getting in their own way has paved a road forward that doesn’t feel like appropriate justice.
The apparent failure in-progress of justice through the courts to act on this issue is leading to more action from employees directly. After staging an additional walkout after the revelations about Bobby Kotick and his involvement directly in early measures against the lawsuit, the developers have taken to pushing harder for an ABK union, with union vote cards and the aforementioned strike.
We’ve also had some more details about shitty practices within ABK, like how Blizzard converted a quiet room to a nursing mother’s room, but made little effort to properly convert the room, supplying a room with a couple of potential electrical hazards and no safe place to lock and store equipment, which led to at least one employee who reported having the breast milk they pumped stolen (!?) by other employees, the refrigerator in the room being used to store beer, and male employees still using the room for short naps which meant it could not be used for its new, intended purpose.
Outside of that, things remain largely in a holding pattern for the direct lawsuit issues. It seems like the denial of DFEH intervention in the settlement means that ABK’s punishment will be light and thus raises a lot of questions over what justice looks like for the employees, as they take their fates into their own hands with the push towards a union drive.
To close out what is a relatively short post here, I wanted to discuss a game-related issue that sort of came out of the news over the summer and how things with it went pear-shaped.
The WoW Community Council was an idea posed in the fall, designed to create a filtered mechanism for player feedback to come through a select group of community members. They’d apply, be vetted (this will be important in a moment), and selected to represent the game’s fanbase to the developers via a closed, but visible forum on the WoW site. If we assume full good faith and intent here, it seems like a way to try to bottleneck the cacophonous chaos that is WoW feedback into a narrow channel where it can be seen, discussed, and (hopefully) acted upon, or at least to offer a counterpoint from the developers on their intent and why things are done a certain way. In an ideal world, this would form the nucleus of an iterative, collaborative process – with players presenting feedback and having discussion openly with developers about design goals and what did or did not land as intended.
Instead, the Community Council is, well….an absolute clusterfuck that is so far away from any goal that it is honestly kind of breathtaking.
Where do we even start? Well, as I put it in my post about uninstalling WoW, a core problem is that the game’s community council overrepresents the high-difficulty content consumption edge of the playerbase, a group that is a vast minority of players but a large part of the council. Most people who introduced themselves on the council forums were raiders or PvPers, and not just raiders, but Cutting Edge-achievement Mythic raiders and rated, high MMR PvPers. Their feedback still carries weight and value all the same, but it ultimately represents a narrow slice of the total package of the game (and happens, coincidentally, to skew towards elements that Blizzard still does a relatively good job at serving with the content in-game).
However, beneath the surface of the community council was something pretty iffy.
The presumption was that Blizzard was vetting these players, that the vetting was designed to ensure different, varying viewpoints and to make sure that players on the council weren’t actively trolling and were generally going to be able to deliver meaningful feedback.
However, it turns out that more than a few of the selected council members are openly racist and used an unofficial Discord of community council members to discuss how the game would be better if Blizzard removed non-white Human customization options (the ones just barely added to the game with Shadowlands). They also used that Discord to discuss how pedophilia is okay (which is…just incredible idiocy). These things might be surprises, but a lot of what I’ve seen in the thread linked suggests that this was a knowable thing about these people prior to the Community Council, so I’m just left flabbergasted as to what vetting even took place. Granted, a lot of these people could have left off their social media presences from their application, but then it raises questions about how these selections were made and what the criteria actually was.
So the Community Council ends up being a lot of pretty narrow-interest players who focus on a set of activities that a minority of the community enjoy, with some real dumb shitlord types in the mix, shouting into a void that gets a low response rate from anyone at Blizzard and publicly identified for other players to target – whether with feedback or less-appreciated commentary. More and more, I am glad that I did not make it to the council!
Then lastly, there is the very poor reception to Exploring Kalimdor, which has led to radio silence from Blizzard and a quiet, unpublicized delay in publication that was only picked up on via Amazon release dates.
The final book, written by Blizzard loremaster Sean Copeland, has a mix of lore errors and other glaring issues.
The first, and easiest to discuss, is that the book is simply incorrect about a major lore fact and is wildly disconnected from the presentation and story of some characters from the game. The book has a passage about the Dark Portal at a time when it wouldn’t exist, which, considering the game is written by someone whose job is keeping those things in order for the game, seems like a pretty major oversight, especially since it made it to publication!
The second issue concerns Zekhan, our old Zappy Boi.
In-game and in the lore to date, Zekhan is savvy. He understands things at a deep level, is able to break through Saurfang’s conflict and advises him right up until Saurfang’s death at the hands of Sylvanas. This is also because he is kind – empathetic, willing to listen to the experiences of others and empathize through his own.
In Exploring Kalimdor, Zekhan is stupid and judgmental. He is presented as being incapable of reading, a depiction that is wholly inconsistent with how trolls are presented in the lore and how a Shaman would be presented in-game. He is frequently presented as a moron, with no understanding of concepts core to Shamanism, like the erosion of earth. He’s also made incredibly judgmental, dismissively discussing both Goblins and Night Elves and their concerns – Goblins are swindling thieves desperate for coin and Night Elves are childishly throwing away their lives to seek justice for Teldrassil. That’s oof number 2.
And then there’s big oof, number 3.
To explain simply, let’s circle the topic a bit before coming in for a landing, because a category of internet edgelord will dismiss this topic out of hand no matter what the facts are.
Racism is a thing in the real world that is still, to this day, quite prevalent (see the Community Council membership dilemma above). It exists, we wish it didn’t, but it is a part of the experience of being human in our times that we all recognize unless you happen to have your head so very far up your own ass. In a fantasy world, a certain amount of racism in-universe can add that experience to a game – discrimination against Orcs on a racial basis, something of that sort. Done carefully and with mindfulness to not emulate a full set of characteristics of a real race of people, it adds grounding to stories.
There is a second way, though, which is a problem – to use the coding and stereotypes of a real race, mapped 1:1 to a fictional one, and then to just use the same real racism against them.
The Goblins as presented in Exploring Kalimdor take on a very specific and particular anti-Semitic trope – being blamed for the water elementals departing Durotar due to poisoning the water, an all-too-close parallel to well-poisoning. Presenting Goblins in this way, coupled with their normal in-game presentation, gets pretty close to a full card of anti-Semitic tropes that wouldn’t be out of place on 4chan or in the disgusting social media feeds of someone with a Pepe avatar. That, specifically, is the problem – representing the idea of racism in fantasy is something that can be done artfully and uniquely so as to not fully emulate the lived experiences that someone might face in the real world. When you just replicate the exact kind of stereotypes and bullshit that a real race of people deals with and assign it to a fantasy race, you haven’t done the work necessary to make it have artistic merit.
All of these topics as a whole paint a fairly bleak picture of Blizzard at this point in time. Their response to having a wide-scale sexual harassment and discrimination suit on their hands is to…make a community council populated in-part with racists arguing to remove black skin options from World of Warcraft (after their vetting process, whatever the fuck that was), quietly let it be with only a single person removed from the council and no public comment, push a book that is built on stereotypes, tropes, and wrong to the lore of the game and delay publication with no public comment or commitment to fixing things, all while your employees revolt and your signature IP rots on the vine for a lack of meaningful innovation or fun gameplay, and the kicker – you’re unlikely to face any meaningful justice for any of this!
Just…ugh, the situation is so vile that it feels bad to even know about. Nowhere on my 2021 bingo card was “male Blizzard employees stealing a woman’s breastmilk” and I’m still kind of unsure that we can even be living in reality at this point.
My hope going forward is that the ABK union is a thing that takes off and that the employees, the actual lifeblood that makes the games, get their justice through their own means, because it feels sadly and increasingly likely that they will not get it via the legal system of the United States.