World of Warcraft’s Social Contract And The Reaction

There definitely wasn’t anything else in the news around WoW or Blizzard that was worth discussing this week, right?

Given the news about ABK in general, you’d think if tools could solve their diversity problems, they’d already have it fixed!

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.

Over the last week, I’ve talked a lot about the social issues in games with DPS meters and the discussions that spawn from having them, and I think that a solution I both agree and disagree with is that you get to cultivate your own circle. In the modern state of most MMOs, you only get to build your team or pick one for harder content – for a lot of other things, you’re likely going to be matched-up with strangers and dropped into a dungeon together, an environment where you have no means of control. An enforceable and actively enforced terms of use with social provisions is a good way to make that solution actually tenable – because now, you hopefully have the random environment covered and can find a social group for harder content that vibes with you. And this contract doesn’t extend out of game, so you bear the responsibility for finding a guild/raid group that also fits your wants and actively works to correct issues with assholes, and as guild leadership, you have a responsibility to cultivate the kind of environment you want to have (which is also true today in that case).

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.

20 thoughts on “World of Warcraft’s Social Contract And The Reaction

  1. First of all – any initiative in reducing toxicity is plausible, no matter how small a step.

    Having played FFXIV for almost a year now, I think the root problem is game design itself. FFXIV just encourages you to be tolerant in oh so many ways.

    People are encouraged to play many jobs, unlike leveling new alts in WoW – and so it’s quite understandable and common when your group mates aren’t too skilled yet to blast through even the well-known content. The system of re-running old content on a regular basis – even a lvl 88 can find itself in Haukke Manor or smth – and has to be tolerant and supportive to the new players and fresh jobs. The acknowledged slog of ARR – and desire to at least make new players feel welcome and enjoy the story, making at least their obligatory dungeon/trial experience pleasant. The very idea of keeping in mind mechanics for hundreds of bosses (if not thousand) and randomness is understandably difficult, so it’s ok and forgivable to forget the certain mechanics.

    The punishment for ignoring/not managing mechanics are grave, so just one extra strife/step is often a difference between life and death, and it’s totally understandable by others: even if a player clearly knows what to do and ran to the safe spot, he just did not manage that last step. Combat rez is almost infinite and allowed to all healers, but casters too – and a big party rez in longer fights could save the most desperate attempt. So raid runs provide a lot less pressure.

    The recommendation system, the mentorship, the sprouts – basically everything in the game design encourages you to challenge the content, try again, and nothing – including wipe – is the end of the world. Heck, even in terms: in WoW it’s death, in FFXIV – it’s… knockout.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Plus WoW is nursing natural enmity: abudant PvP, artificial faction friction, open world competition for nodes, quest mobs and such does not help to see other players as your friends and buddies too.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. All very true and worth analyzing, I think – the game’s core design is a source of friction that helps create these bad outcomes, for sure. The terminology callout in your other comment was one I hadn’t thought of but definitely agree with too – the verbiage used in-game makes a very big difference, like kill vs KO and the like. There’s definitely some thought given there to how the design might help make things more welcoming even down to minor details.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. You touched on a topic I would like to dive into. Servers. Way back in the Wrath Cata era before they started merging servers, server identity had meaning. You had to at least maintain something of a tolerance to bad behavior, but bad behavior got you noticed, and you found yourself being excluded from group content because of it. Word would quickly get passed along to an officer or GM of the guild you were in, and you might find yourself out of a home. Borean Tundra opened in 2009 after Wrath was well underway, it was strictly new characters only, and about 60% of the population were veterans looking to get Scarab Lord. The other 40% of us were treated like trash players. We were brand new, we watched South Park, and started where it said New Players. We were called every derogatory gaming name you could think of. When the majority of those veteran players all left, after they allowed transfers off, we were left on our own. A few of them stayed. They saw an opportunity to help new players learn the right way to do things, and we learned how to play the game. But an interesting thing happened, sure we would joke around with each other, would poke fun at each other in the forums, but it was all in good fun, there was nothing vicious about it. When the occasional guild would transfer in looking to claim a top spot server first, they were met with a unified front if they showed up to put us down. Claims that we are coming here to show you casual bads and noobs how to play the game, we are going to be number 1, maybe if you ask nice we will carry your lame character for a few bosses, if you give us gold. They would last a tier or two before we just grew tired of listening to them. And eventually they would leave. We looked out for our own, and did the best we could. When they merged us with Shadowsong a west coast server, we were central, it was a learning curve. We made it work, most of their players had played since vanilla, and we got along. During BfA they dropped 6 more on to us, I don’t even know their server names anymore. Once they did that, we lost our identity, too many years of people leaving or transferring away, and those OG Borean Tundra people were just a handful. I run the last surviving Day 1 guild. The core tenants of the guild charter hold to this day. But it’s harder and harder every year to keep up with it. My wife and I are the last or those from the beginnings, we’ve held on as best we can.

    One thing I wish Blizzard would do is give Guild Leaders more ability. With 8 servers it’s near impossible to know all of the Alts any one person may have. On those rare occasions someone needs to be removed for the offenses in the new agreement, I wish I could account ban them from the guild. I’ve had to ban someone about 7 times over the last 13 years. 3 times for stealing, 2 times because of behavior that was reported to me, and when asked they said they did, who cares, and twice for harassment where we had to get Blizzard involved. I hope this new contract is enforced, and is not just to pay lip service to maintain appearances of doing something.

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  3. Strangely, it feels like the “old days” of 1996-2004 were politer days. Granted, I was in mostly MUDs and City of Heroes at that point, but I don’t think Everquest had it that bad either.

    Now and then, I wonder if it’s partially a generational thing. I was reading Feynman’s letters the other day, and they were -far- more verbose and polite than my generation is used to. I was skipping lines and skim-reading by page 200. I don’t know if the younglings these days think the epitome of proper behavior and good communication are 1-3 words, repeated for emphasis, and preferably some more spammed emojis, because anything else is a wall of text that can’t be read anyway.

    Game design also definitely plays a part, of course. If one gets the sense that other players are interchangeable and plentiful means to a personal end, or conversely people whom will never offer tangible value when interacted with, there’s very little incentive to maintain a cordial relationship.

    I feel like the incessant FOMO of these more internet social connected days are also a contributory factor to some bad behavior. Certain people seem to get more antsy if they see something easily done or easily explained on a video or stream or wiki somewhere, and then have their expectations dashed when confronted with the reality of people learning at different speeds and at different places in their understanding of the game and the encounter.

    Their standard of comparison is always the grass supremely greener, immaculately cultivated image of some top level professionals and in their need to keep up with the Joneses in a set amount of time (thank you game design for time limited objectives, and thank you players for self-imposed speedrun and world first objectives), it ends up increasingly necessary to push aside or leave others (blocking or impeding progress) on their way to meeting the idealized Instagram image of themselves as ‘successful’ people.

    Which would be fine if they could do so in a civilized and diplomatic manner, or just “drop silently, never to be seen again,” but apparently standards of communication are now to a point where “u suk, git gud” and “that guy is bad, kick him” is about the average level of clarity and things devolve from there.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. (TW: Suicide)

    I’ve been listening to a podcast called “Revolutions”, which is really riveting, despite what one may think (I think, the closer one becomes to becoming part of history, the more one becomes interested in it). Anyway, I’m up to the Russian Revolution, and damn if something didn’t pop up that was relevant to this discussion.

    I can’t find the guy’s name now, but, in Lenin’s organization before the 1905 revolution, there was this guy, and, if anyone would be considered toxic, it was him. He got so bad that he harassed one woman to the point that she wrote a letter to Lenin and his cohorts detailing the situation, and then committed suicide.

    Where this has relevance to WoW was how Lenin reacted to this. He felt that this guy, despite his flaws, was such a good agent that they should overlook it. The revolution was all. Some collateral damage would take place.

    This was the first nail in the coffin of the friendship between him and Martov, the thin edge of the wedge that drove them apart, and probably changed the face of the coming revolution forever (I haven’t gotten to that part of the podcast, but I do know Lenin regretted the split).

    As long as raid leaders and GMs continue to look the other way, to forgive toxicity due to performance, then we will continue to see this. Blizz has made it worse with their world first contests, by giving teams no reason to focus on anything but performance.

    It’s the ultimate Skinner Box.

    Add to this that most raid leaders are not, in fact, good leaders – no training, no references, just thrown in to the cage with the other monkeys and told “well this is how we’ve always done it”.

    This isn’t really a WoW thing though. You gather a sufficient number of Anonymous Internet Assholes in one place and this kind of thing happens automatically. Things like 4chan or usenet have been proving this point for decades. I was there for the FidoNet wars. This is old hat.

    Begs the question: is there a cure? I’m not sure there is, not an acceptable one anyway. In Fido we mitigated things a bit with moderation in public Echos, but once again, moderators had no training, no standards to operate against, just “your word is law have a nice day”. Back then you always had the option to spin off your own echo or BBS. But to get to the next level, I kind of feel like some sort of concept similar to “thought crimes” becomes relevant and that’s not a place I wanna go, ever.

    Maybe you can’t cure it. Maybe you can only react to it. Either it’s not curable after all this time, or nobody really wants to try.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We had one instance awhile back during Draenor. Someone fairly skilled on the raid team was behaving inappropriately towards a woman in the guild. She had screen caps of his messages. I mentioned what she sent to me in our officer forums. There were a few Damn, he’s such a good player and asset to the raid team we hate to lose him. I replied that in no uncertain terms harassment was not tolerated and that I was only informing them prior to me banning him. At the time we also had a server discord with a private GM channel, he got reported there also. He tried bashing the guild and me personally. I messaged him one day and asked him to stop. If he wanted to persist I could easily send all of the screen caps to Blizz. He said you wouldn’t dare. Then I added that I could also post them on Twitter and in or server Facebook group if he liked. He stopped bothering everyone after. I think he just deleted his characters and rerolled on another server

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      1. That is a familiar story, and similar to one that broke our raiding guild up (technically it was me calling him out for his shit and the GM wanting to gloss things over, since I could have just let it slide). In this case there were no consequences to the jerk in question since he was already raiding with another guild (which was also part of the problem since it was on our raid night) but of course our guild was no more so we were ultimately punished. And we really didn’t have the means to reform elsewhere without the RL in question because we were already a small guild with few prospects.

        Wouldn’t have it the other way though. I would rather never raid again than make that kind of compromise.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m an older adult. I could be a grandfather to some of the kids I’ve had in guild over the years. The first guild I was in was run by a guy that said he was a preacher in real life. We found out later that he was hitting on two young, under 15 years old, girls in the guild. Many of us had left to join another for a long list of reasons, one day he just took everything and disbanded the guild. I spent a few weeks getting messages from kids asking me why they were kicked out of the guild. I tried explaining that some times adults can be very immature. It wasn’t their fault. Found new guilds for about a dozen, maybe another dozen just said they were quitting. I’ve always from that day maintained that I could care less if you were a top 10 ranked world first raider. I do not put up with that.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Add to this that most raid leaders are not, in fact, good leaders – no training, no references, just thrown in to the cage with the other monkeys and told “well this is how we’ve always done it”.

      Yes, this.

      Many guild leaders and/or raid leaders are given that because they:

      –Volunteered/Created the thing
      –Were good at their class
      –Knew the fights

      Not a single listing up there translates into good leadership. You can be a good leader if you had one or more of those three items, but it didn’t mean that you were guaranteed to be one.

      It’s just like work: anybody can be picked to be a team lead or a boss, but whether or not they’re good at it isn’t necessarily a skill that can be taught. You can learn how to handle the ropes, but to be a good leader you have to have that spark that can’t be taught. It’s not necessarily Charisma, either; it’s the ability to bring everyone together, get them to focus on the task and hand, handle discipline, allow for feedback, and let people be themselves. Charisma alone won’t cut it. And neither will learning how to lead, either. (If HR departments had their way, all they’d have to do is send people to “leadership school” and they’d have a ready supply of “leaders” ready to go. But I’ve been in business –and alas, big business– for over 20 years and I can tell you from direct experience that “leadership school” doesn’t do crap for real leadership. When someone tells you that person ABC is a great pick for a CEO because “he went to CEO School”, RUN!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. When I was debating taking the lead for the guild. The person running it was no longer playing, we were down to about 7-8 people. My wife and I were the only ones online on Friday and Saturday night, I went and bought the Guild Leaders handbook off Amazon. Read through it. Made the decision to ask to take the lead, spent time reformatting the guild and ranks, then spent a year and a half being a cheerleader, talking up the guild, the server, working with other guilds to promote community. It was a challenge and in the end we hit the cap. At the beginning of BfA we had 85 people online. That was the high point of many years of work. Since then with the server being connected to 7 others, the loss of so many people to the direction of the game, it’s not something I could ever do again.

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      1. POINTS! to Esteban

        Thanks, that name was on the tip of the tongue.

        And you are so much not wrong. That is exactly how we get Stalins (or so I guess since I’m just now starting on the 1917 revolution!)

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      2. Marathal, you wanted the gig and you felt you could make a difference. You also went out and learned the ropes before deciding to go for it. Too many times I’ve seen people jump and then say “okay, now what?”

        Now I have to go hunt down this handbook. I am most definitely curious.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I guess I was out of the loop again, because your post here was the first I saw about it. It seemed that everybody in Classic was thinking “Sunwell” and this kind of slid under the radar.

    But I’m going to have to put a post of my own together, I suppose, because my first thought is “It’s about fucking time.”

    And my next thought was “that asshat who was tolerated in guild back in Wrath because he was great raider but was a real sexist and racist prick in Trade Chat would never have lasted a day under the new conditions.”

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, that explains that. Thanks!

        But yeah, a quirk of WordPress is that because I grabbed Azeroth After Dark to play with later, I’m stuck with it whenever I reply on a WordPress blog. (Oops.)

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  6. I can’t see any real change happening from this. It’s just a way to make it seem like they’re addressing the awful behavior. Remember when they let a paid guest at Blizzcon call people slurs and tell them to kill themselves because they chose to play Alliance?? I do, I was there in person. This problem is bigger than this contract.

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    1. Ah yes, they even gave that guy an in-game NPC (something something the Corpsegrinder or something like that). They JUST renamed it last year, when all the shit started going down and they needed a distraction.

      (which, reminds me, did they remove Afrasiabi from Classic / TBCC, or will be be seeing this chump again in WotLK-Classic?)

      Liked by 1 person

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