Process and Product — The Blizzard-Activision Lawsuit
For a long time, Blizzard has been known as a company that has prided itself on never releasing unpolished games. This has provided a great deal of respect as the years have gone on. In earlier gaming periods, it was essential for games to be quality tested, lest they find themselves printing discs of updated versions of games, which could not be patched with an internet connection. This did not stop games from releasing in broken states, with bugs and glitches discovered painfully, or used for pleasure in speed runs. Few games could truly say that they had entered the realm of polish. Many games from Blizzard could.
This gave, without us knowing, through some pervasive slippage of our imagination, the idea that, behind the games, the people were as talented and upright as morally or ethically seemed required to produce games of this caliber. Games like Starcraft, Warcraft, World of Warcraft, and Diablo, were bastions of game design and style, and it seemed as though, for the people who made the games, that they were more so the gentlemen of the gaming world. Compared to hotshots like gearbox, we might say, or the hyper-adrenalized worlds of first-person shooters who made Doom and Call of Duty, the assumptions we made were that, somehow, the representation of robust and articulate gaming came from robust and articulate people.
This was a lie.
It was no better a lie than seen in other times in human history. The aristocracy of England was called out as such by Bruce Robinson in “They All Love Jack” as fifteen years of research led to the repeated damning of the Victorian Era, a period that allowed someone like Jack the Ripper to flourish. It was also assumed, during the Victorian Era, that proper etiquette and dress, and signals of proper morals in public must necessarily follow that a lady in the street is no “freak in the bed.” A cursory glance into the Victorian Era would prove the opposite.
What is most abhorrent is not that it happened, but that we are continuing to find, in these revealing anecdotes about workplace culture and habits, that it continues without a second glance, or without any sort of guilt or shame involved. Many of the allegations made against some of the employees at Blizzard-Activision have several implications. The first is that several of the men seem to have little to no control over the way they feel. Engaging in cubicle crawls drunk on alcohol seems not only derogatory but just plain silly, no doubt a combination of welding one’s entire social life to a workplace, but also lacking an ability to express any sort of empathy, not enough to read a room, we might say. There has pervaded some idea that character is not required when creating the skilled professional. And yet when writers, in the mid-2010s, were beginning to emphasize among businesses the power of emotional intelligence, where it seemed not to flourish at all happened to also be in some of the largest and most lucrative of businesses. Here we are reading about yet another case of sexual harassment in the workplace, over two years, investigated by the state of California, and it seems all the more depressing that it feels years too late. The damage has been done, always done.
Similar to the Hollywood film industry, gaming has been largely dominated by men. After Gamergate, there was this pithy reaction by gamers that women would come in and ruin all the fun. More false dichotomies. We learned that an egalitarian society, with low wealth inequality, could also lead to higher growth in the mid-20th century, and what we are learning is that a diverse range programmers leads to better games. It seems absurd to think that the incestuous lack of meritocracy in game development could lead to anything novel, progressive, or interesting. Many of these arguments assume binaries that never have to be the case.
And yet the money kept coming in. After the moral scruples, after facing the lack of diverse opinions paid fairly, we have to decide what to do now as consumers. Like many veteran gamers, I too squealed with delight at the possibility of a remastered Diablo game. I played my fair share as a child, but I missed the obsessive moment to give Diablo its due. Now I suffer a doubt I have not really felt in other mediums. To me, a writer can be absolutely segregated from their writing. Can a company as draconian as Activision-Blizzard, the same company that lays off their employees, harasses them, and pays their CEOs overwhelming bonuses, be paid to continue doing so? Where do the lines end? Is Vicarious Visions, who was hired to finish up development on Diablo, a part of this problem? It is up to the consumer to find out for themselves. With no guarantee that this blow up with such a large company will ever mean a changing of the guard for the industry as a whole, we have to accept that, whenever a consumer is forced to consider their purchasing decisions on ethical grounds, the case is already a failure. Whether it be Apple’s products, or the clothes we wear, it seems that consumers at some point become in on the joke any time they choose to buy. To escape the system, capitalism, seems impossible, but curtailing spending habits, an Eastern promise, only goes so far. The infrastructure we need is social in origin, in terms of unions, laws, and oversight, all of which are ill-prepared for the 21st century.
Is this indicative of the entire industry? Not at all. Many of the best games have been made by small teams of indie developers. They respect and rely on each other, and through mutual respect they make excellent pieces of art. Hades, by Supergiant Games, is a testament to the power of technology to democratize the art form enough for it to feel like a AAA title. Gamers who do decide to boycott Blizzard-Activision will find plenty other choices on offer. I myself am still playing Risk of Rain 2, developed by a team of three people. When Hopoo Games, the makers of the roguelike, hired three more people, we can say with some degree of confidence that a team of six would be much more difficult to carry out draconian measures to the degree that it’s done. I am not going to say that it is impossible, but I am going to suggest that larger teams of people breed a better chance for turmoil than a smaller team ever could. By the time the lawsuit arrived, it reminded me that Diablo Remastered was coming out this year. It also reminded me to reconsider that purchasing decision.
We have learned that, unless outside force is exerted on an industry, it has little chance of correcting itself. The incentives are too financial, the social stigma against speaking out too dangerous, the desire to fit in (and not cause conflict) too tempting. We have laws and regulations to curb our human impulses, and businesses too are social organisms. Blizzard-Activision is so sick that we are unsure if it knows how to be well again. Like other sicknesses, we may want to consider socially distancing ourselves. Employees should be paid according to their work, and should be treated with dignity. To write these things explicitly implies failure.
Originally published at https://theroyleline.blog on July 28, 2021.