There definitely wasn’t anything else in the news around WoW or Blizzard that was worth discussing this week, right?
Okay, okay – that…thing also happened, but I want to talk about a different thing that is aimed at addressing a core issue with, well, gaming in general.
WoW gets a reputation as being something of a cesspool in-game, and I think it is both earned and unearned. I think in world content, toxicity is fairly small-scale and comparable to most online games – nothing really special. From personal experience, however, the higher up the content scale you go, the more likely it is that you’ll encounter someone being a douchebag. It also depends on server, partially – larger, more established servers with a high population of your faction can have swampy trade and city chats as well, but I think that most players will probably have an okay enough experience on average, thus the unearned part. Where Blizzard earns that community reputation, at least partially, is in response to feedback and reports on said behaviors. The game has a reputation for being exceptionally laissez-faire about harassment reports to a point where the report tool does tend to feel worthless, in that way. It’s hopefully rare that you run into a real asshole, but when you do, you won’t exactly feel like there’s any consequence to that person for it. A big part of the allure of Classic was the idea of community reputation – that enough douchebaggery would eventually make your name famous in a way that would get you blacklisted and cast out of most groups. On retail WoW, that just isn’t a thing – the pool of players is large enough that being a dick never brings any real punitive measures on your head other than in that moment by the players who you are with.
Blizzard’s company-wide game EULA doesn’t make a lot of provisions for player behavior, which is a part of why these things can slip through so simply. In a 12-point sub-section of that EULA, only 1 bullet point applies to behavior in-game – number xi, which specifies that “conduct intended to disrupt or diminish the game experience for other players…” is against the EULA. (Funnily enough, item vi in that same section prohibits data-mining with a loophole for Blizzard-allowed third party interfaces!) This contrasts quite sharply with the FFXIV terms of service, flawed though they also are, which has a fairly large section of “prohibited activities” with specific context and examples provided to guide reports. So, to a point, I kind of get why Blizzard’s policy enforcement feels pretty anemic – it is because the guidelines are incredibly vague and could be argued to be misinterpreted on both sides of a reportable interaction.
But the WoW team no longer wants to let that stand, and into that space enters the WoW Social Contract, scheduled to enter the game in patch 9.2.5.
The contract requires players on sign-in (I haven’t seen confirmation if it is every session or just the first time post-patch) to agree to a set of more specific social interaction terms before being able to play, with no choice to deny them and still play – either Accept or Exit. The terms are very gentle, asking you to be a mindful player who helps people asking questions and codifies that hate speech, harassment, threats, spamming, abusive/derogatory language, and “disruptive behaviors” are not allowed and specifies that a suspension or ban could come down as a result of this.
My first reaction? It’s a good first step, all told. It adds detail to the in-game terms and makes sure that players are shown it and accept it prior to playing, which means there is little recourse for an “I didn’t know” defense to being an asshole, even though that shouldn’t have worked before because obviously, but hey. Creating an avenue to enforce a better game environment is a good first step, and my only point of contention personally is that I need to see Blizzard actually enforce it before it is a full win for them.
However, if you have been in the WoW-centric community on sites like WoWhead or the absolute sludge-pool that is the MMO-Champion forums, you’ll notice a very different reaction. It only took 45 comments on the WoWhead article about this being added to the PTR for testing, the one I linked above, for comments to be locked by the site. If you set up a bingo card with every idiotic buzzword parroted online, you could probably get close to a blackout. Should “woke” or “snowflake” be the free space? I don’t know! A real bunch of “freethinkers” who somehow all have the same tired fucking arguments are real mad that they’re being asked to think about the people they play with as fellow humans, uh-oh!
I even saw someone I know compare the feature to the social credit system in China, which is surely a very stupid overreaction that tells on this person more than they perhaps intended.
Here’s the thing – a lot of the problems that face most MMOs and the genre as a whole are social problems, at least in my view. You can have an amazing game with a strong, explorable open world and content for the endgame-focused player, but any time you put multiple people together, there will be friction. Most modern MMOs smooth that out by creating content that is designed to be smooth, simple, and fast – anything you can do in Duty Finder in FFXIV, Normal and Heroic Dungeons and LFR raids in WoW, and the like are all designed to be straightforward and reduce the social friction experienced by reducing the bar to clear to, in some cases, a near subterranean level (and even then, LFR in WoW can still often encounter a fair bit of difficulties that draw out tension). These games then put the real friction into hard content that is behind other walls – typically not random-queueable, encouraging either a formed group of strangers with the same goal or a guild/static group to tackle them. However, in spite of this, sometimes people are just going to be people – flawed, focused on themselves and their goals, and unwilling to meet in the middle. It happens to everyone, and all of us have likely been that player at some point. Maybe someone uses an annoying chat spam macro, or kills you with a mechanic – sometimes the beast within awakens.
But at the same time, I think most people know or have encountered folks in MMOs who are just consistently awful to their groups or teammates. They can’t find enough adjectives to throw at you if your DPS is 5% beneath theirs, if it takes you a week or two longer to learn a mechanic they snap, if you mess up something with a tight execution window, they clutter up the chat window and/or voice chat with their rants and raves. One thing I do think is true about WoW is that it has existed for a long time with this vague and un-enforced idea of social commitment that a lot of people in it have internalized petty and awful behavior to teammates in group content. I’ve said previously that I believe that is a failure of Blizzard to lead on the issue, and I stand by that – which is why I think it is good that they are turning a gaze in that direction and will give them unqualified kudos for it when we see action actually taken.
For me, I am glad to see that people are sweating the issue and thinking about what it means for their playtime. I am fully enthusiastic to see the kind of people who make the experience in the game worse for others have to face the idea of being handed a suspension for it or indeed any kind of consequence at all whatsoever. The thing about terms like this is that they don’t punish you for offering feedback – you can tell someone they need to improve their performance to finish a punishing Mythic+ run, you can give advice on rotation and ability priority, and obviously the game isn’t going to make you answer any question you see in the wild lest a GM show up wielding a banhammer. What it does do is make you accountable to doing so respectfully, because, “you suck” is not actionable performance feedback or designed to push any improvement in the targeted player. If your intent is good, you have nothing to fear – the boogeyman of the ToS is often used in FFXIV, but I have yet to hear a single account of someone getting banned for offering genuine good-faith critique and help to a player, and when someone tells a story of “I got banned for being helpful” you can usually tell from the context of their other posts and activity that they are full of shit.
And ultimately, I think the people who want to be toxic should be removed from the game. If you think the social contract is akin to a dystopian system of control or the result of a “woke agenda” then like, maybe you’re too far gone already, because those views are not in line with healthy social behaviors or even reality. I’m so fucking tired of people who insist that the internet is this wild-west atmosphere that means everyone around them needs to “get thicker skin.” Hey, maybe in like 2004 when WoW launched that could be argued, but in 2022? The internet is no longer this weird and distant thing of curiosity, it is the backbone of the modern economy and a part of everyone’s daily life. It’s no longer this limited-access clubhouse where the kind of loser who says that gets to gatekeep anymore – my parents are on it (lord knows how many boomer meme pages I had to block on Facebook because of that), your parents are probably on it, older relatives are also probably on it, and it no longer is this special little place where the loudest people in the room get to control it through ostracizing those they don’t like.
And here’s the kicker – if this plays out like it does in FFXIV, then there is actually a means to report people who are toxic when underperforming too, because if you offer polite and respectful feedback and they respond like a feral animal, that is grounds for account action under readings of both game’s TOS! While Blizzard’s social contract leaves room for interpretation a little bit more, the section on teamplay reads, to me, like it could be enforced in a similar way to the “lethargic gameplay” clause in the FFXIV TOS. I am not a lawyer and I expect further clarifications from Blizzard, but I would interpret that section as being applicable to those kind of scenarios. That is a good thing – because the environment in an MMO should be one where teamplay should encourage players to lift each other up and be open to feedback, both to give and receive it and to be a part of a team focused in on the same goal.
Overall, do I expect this to be impactful? Yes and no. Assuming that Blizzard takes action on reports received under the contract, I think there will be some period of adjustment where some particularly awful people to play with will get bopped for rules violations and the dumbasses who think everything is a woke conspiracy will have their moment to decide if they stay or flee the game, which will likely have a net positive impact on the game’s atmosphere as a whole. Culturally, it will have some time before I think it catches on, because a fair number of longtime WoW players I know (and I was one of them myself) have written off the report tool as anything other than an account-level block to avoid particularly shitty people, and it will take some examples loudly professing their bans for the reports to properly flow. At the same time, I think that most WoW players aren’t going to see much change from it, because they’ve cultivated their experience already and have a decent one. My back-pocket hope is that it will encourage people to push more into higher-end content and up the pool of players pushing Heroic raids or higher Mythic+ keys, because a more welcoming environment (even if artificially so where people are biting their tongues) is one into which more people can take first steps and see if they like the content or not. Not all of them will stay, of course, but having the option to give the mode a fair shake on their terms is a benefit to the game and to that playerbase, wanting more people and more options to push keys or fill raid slots.
At this point, anything that can help more people feel actively welcome in Azeroth and find their way without morons shouting them out of dungeons, raid groups, and the like is a good thing, and I am glad to see that Blizzard is cognizant at last of the effect that community can have on people’s experience in the game.