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Old 05-01-2021, 11:18 PM
Kyalin V. Raintree Kyalin V. Raintree is offline

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Warcraft’s faction conflict was always and still is an integral part of the franchise. In the RTS, it functioned well enough, but in Warcraft 3 it had to change to accommodate the personal investment and focus of an MMO. It did something that, in my mind, was very intelligent – it gave both sides a reason to identify with their respective side and set them in an almost-Cold war mutual antagonism.

Warcraft 3 existed to make WoW, not to be like its father

It did this, I believe, because Blizzard wanted to continue a rivalry, and rivalries require balance. A good rivalry in an MMO should be like watching two equally matched, but thematically distinct kaiju duking it out. Both sides should be able to bring their A-game, and both sides should be supportable, especially when the game is offering players to jump headfirst into the world as a member of these respective factions, to carry their flag, and represent their team. One side or the other can’t look bad or be seen as the loser in comparison to the other. The members of each team might want to feel superior, to dominate the other – but they can never have that unless they want to demoralize and foster resentment from the other side. When there are only two teams in the league, you can’t have one of them being the Cleveland browns. Both have got to be ready to go to the Super Bowl.

However, Blizzard also appeared to want to put the faction conflict into a story, and tell a broader moral message – not just that war is bad, but I believe, the causes for war. Warcraft 3 for the Orcs started on this note, before the new note because Old Hatreds. Fair enough, but Blizzard decided to go back to the well, and deconstruct the desire to dominate, as filtered through the methods of phobic and envious racism that I discussed last time. For they Alliance, they also attacked something else, and they did it more bluntly in MOP. They stated that it was bad to feel pride (which they allowed the Horde to seriously wound in Cataclysm), and they have implied that it is bad to want revenge.

This just doesn’t work. You can’t jam the rivalry into a story like this when that story is out to attack and deconstruct the reasons for participating in that rivalry. Yes, wanting to dominate people is bad. Pride is considered to be a sin, and revenge is typically something that people should avoid. Yeah, try telling that to the Notre Dame football team after losing to Michigan at their own homecoming game – especially if the Michigan football team was clearly and obviously taking steroids. They’ve got that one scene from Rudy playing on repeat right now where the coach says “no one, and I mean no one comes into our house and pushes us around” – they are likely not interested in pretentious lecturing. Now the league is going to swoop in and say that Michigan is evil for wanting to win the game, and so is Notre Dame for wanting a rematch? The only evil here is the seeking of unfair advantage – and in that case Notre Dame is right to be pissed because the game was manifestly unfair and because they were humiliated.

What are the steroids in this situation? That would be the story itself dictating who wins and who loses, and the moral implications of wanting dominance at all costs. Why is this bad?

Let’s talk about Russian Literature.

Well, before we get to that, let’s change subjects for a second and talk about tragedies and downer endings, which I’m increasingly deconstructing. The conclusion of that to me is that downer stories should have a larger point to them. Either the tragic end should be in some respect deserved, or it should be getting the audience to consider something. It should have meaning. But you also have to be careful about it, or you’re going to end up with Bill Maher’s assessment of the 2021 Oscars, and the box office results of their nominees. Why? Well, consider Dr. Zhivago. Like any good piece of Russian Literature, bad things happen to the characters from which they don’t recover. The story doesn’t end with a happily ever after, but with a main protagonist who dies just before he can reconnect to the love of his life (possibly – the woman he saw resembled her, but may not have been her) who got separated from him towards the end of the story. But what happened to Zhivago wasn’t the point of the story as Dr. Zhivago was a scathing critique of Russian Communism – and because it was so good at being that, despite having a downer ending, people liked it.

In fact, people liked it so much that it won a Nobel prize for literature, at least not in Russia. In Russia? The Soviet Government blocked its author, Boris Pasternak, from accepting that award, and according to some theories, effectively starved him to death. The lesson to this tale is to read the room, people don’t like it when you call them out.

The Horde and Human Nature

Battle for Azeroth was an attempt to make a statement about ourselves – that we turn to the illogic of racism to rationalize horrific acts so that we ourselves may gain advantage over other groups in the struggle described by the conflict theory of sociology. We are often slaves to cynical power politics, and that otherwise normal, good people – like the people of Germany during the second world war – can fall to this depravity, and that at the end of the day that there is very little separating ourselves from the great monsters of history. It is a critique of the appeal and infection of Fascism and other movements of collective power that seek to gain that power by coming up with any excuse imaginable, real or imagined, to dominate and destroy other, perceived-as-competing groups. It finally did that by making the Horde fall to this very thing, as it critiques the desire of its members to dominate other groups.

And when I refer to its members, I AM referring to its players. Consider a goblin fan that I’ve sparred with who I will call “Betty”. Betty doesn’t like the War of the Thorns, because it made the Horde look evil, yet she at the same time gushes at every chance she gets about how the goblins should have turned it into a reenactment of the tree burning scene from Avatar. She has stated many times that she doesn’t like Night Elves, and very clearly wants her goblins to curbstomp them – while at the same time paying lip service to the idea that they should get Ashenvale back…. so long as it doesn’t involve the Night Elves actually fighting back against the Horde in an onscreen fashion, or making the Horde look bad, martially or morally. She wants the power fantasy of wanting to completely demolish her enemies without the moral lesson that comes with it. In short, Betty and her friends are faction partisans who want the Horde to kick ass and destroy its enemies without bothersome moral quandaries standing in its way. Now they’re stuck with a narrative that is calling them evil for that, and seek to block any content that would either allow their faction rival to strike back, or that would force them to look inward about what they desire.

Now, in a rivalry, this is a completely human response. As I said, it is natural to want to dominate your opponent, but as I also said, for a good rivalry to exist, you can’t have that. Your team can’t win every game. There must be a back and forth. There must be counterplay. There must be balance, including moral balance.

Does that make Betty’s actions and stance understandable and good? No. Having a conscience is the line between merely having desires to make other people miserable for one’s own selfish reasons and acting on them. Betty wants Blizzard to do the latter and doesn’t care that it’s manifestly unfair. The group that she’s victimizing needed to be taken down a peg anyway (see that envious rationalization that describes envious racism come in? It’s the same logic), and she’ll run whatever suite of arguments she needs to in order to convince herself of that, no matter how absurd, arbitrary, or just plain false they are. In that sense, Betty is the intended target of BFA’s attempt to tell a moral lesson. Her selfish desire to dominate the other side is what BFA is calling out – or at least was before Blizzard aborted the project and tried once again to pin everything on an “Evil Jesus” to die for the sins that the Horde will not face up to. I think that Steve Danuser was on to something when he said that the Cata/MOP war asked questions that were never answered (namely the Horde’s fascism and phobic/envious racism leading them inevitably to these atrocities), but I also think that at some point they realized that actually resolving them wasn’t going to work.

Why? It’s the same reason that I’ve given up on trying to talk to Betty and her friends. Which is the same reason that the Soviet Union likely killed Boris Pasternak. People are selfish, people will often rationalize awful behavior to validate that selfishness, and people don’t like being called out. Metanarratively, you’re trying to tell people in a situation where each side wants to dominate the other that they’re evil for wanting to do so. While this is technically correct, a rivalry is supposed to be a healthy outlet for those impulses, one based around fair competition where you earn your triumphs over other people. Sure, you’d love it if that competition wasn’t fair and you just won all of the time, and that is an evil desire because it requires you making other people lose and feel miserable for reasons other than not having the skills to beat you, but you shouldn’t get that. Nor should you want that. So the competition is fair and grounded around rules that apply to everyone. That makes for a healthy rivalry, and a healthy outlet. Blizzard purposely made the rivalry toxic by tipping the scales in order to scold one side for having those desires – desires that every single one of us, by nature of being human, have. That was NEVER going to go over well.

Why I’ve given up

A part of the point to this is the same reason why I chose not to keep commenting on the Story Forums, and why I have left several WoW-focused discords (including SoL). Night Elf fans as a community have been dragged through the mud despite bringing up their concerns in about the same way that the Horde community has, and with about the same frequency. I’ve watched people like “Betty” tuck into the exact same behavioral patterns that they call Night Elf fans “crazy” for – and there’s a simple reason why that label has stuck. We’re outnumbered. The story has placed our desires in direct opposition to the Horde as a faction (which outnumbers and outguns the Alliance and will for the foreseeable future because Blizzard doesn’t want to address the problem), AND the Humans, who are far and away the largest share of the Alliance’s population. This dynamic led to the creation of a series of bad-faith memes that are now taken as canon, that were created in the first place because of the same logic that BFA was criticizing. Night Elves needed to be at the same time too powerful to exist in their current state and too weak to resist story developments that sought to “take them down a peg”. This contradiction, by the way, I want to point out, is one of the fourteen elements of Fascism, as described by Uberto Eco in his work Ur Fascism, and it’s employed here for the same reason that the fascists used it against their opponents – as rationalization for inexcusable action.

Because we are outnumbered, we will never win this fight. Discussions on how the story should go forward have devolved into cynical power politics, and in that game, the two wolves have won the vote to eat the sheep. People benefit from our misery and will defend its institution - and WoW communities inevitably slide into protecting this dynamic.

But I will at least in parting point out the awful, and selfish logic that sits behind that vote.

If you feel like you’ve been called out…

Some who may read this may conclude that I am talking about them, and if that’s the case, they’re probably correct. Does this mean that I consider them to be defective or naturally evil people? No. The lessons of history, most notably World War II, teach us that normal people just like us behave like this – and that is why it’s so important that we not forget, and why we must call out these impulses within ourselves. At the end of the day, I am describing methods of thinking that are common to human beings generally. You should not be ashamed for having these impulses. Everyone has them. But you should work to actively check them, and to consider, and have empathy for others – even if you don’t see eye to eye with them. Even though I’ve grown jaded and cynical about the ability of people to do this, I will still try to do it myself, and I hope that you will join me.

Who knows, maybe you will do the thing that I would like more than anything else on this and most things that I comment on. Maybe you’ll prove me wrong.
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Last edited by Kyalin V. Raintree; 05-01-2021 at 11:44 PM..
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  #377  
Old 09-08-2021, 11:49 PM
Kyalin V. Raintree Kyalin V. Raintree is offline

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During Mists of Pandaria, there was a scenario that I keep coming back to today as I contemplate recent events surrounding WoW. It's a rather infamous one - A Little Patience, but I realize that it's been a bit since then, so for those new here, let me just quickly describe it for you.

In the heat of a global war, both factions have for some reason made Pandaria their key battleground. Tyrande Whisperwind arrives, presumably because the liberation of her home territories isn't her biggest priority, to instead liberate a Pandaren temple in the Krasarang Forest from a dug-in enemy. Tyrande, a priestess of the moon with ten-thousand years of experience in warfare in forests and a veteran of the War of the Ancients and the "Third" War needs to be taught not to charge into said fortified position by a 40-year old human male with comparatively little (even by human standards) strategic experience because that man is the Alliance's newly-minted "High King". The Orcs abandon their strategically advantageous position and follow each other into death traps that should have been clear to the people behind the first victims of them until every last one of them is dead - because that's how Orcs work now and because of sheer, unfiltered human potential.

The achievement for setting up the Night Elf trap is called "I used to love them", which I critiqued at the time as a cheeky reference to the common Night Elf fan complaint that they used to love the Night Elves until Cataclysm defanged them - and we were as common and loud as we are now with less of the gloom. I was informed at the time that this was just me exhibiting a paranoid victim complex (some things never change) because I didn't pick up that all of these achievements were actually Guns n' Roses song references, and this one was referencing the song "I used to love her". What my critics neglected to do was actually listen to the song. It goes like this:

"I used to love her.
But I had to kill her.
I had to put her
six feet under
and I can still hear her complain."

I guess you could say that one didn't age well, did it?

----------

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) investigation and its results are by now well known of course - but they accuse Blizzard in particular of hosting a pervasive, toxic, frat boy workplace culture, and the accusations have ensnared some of the key Warcraft story devs who slid into senior management during Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm. My white whale Dave Kosak is even one of the names listed in connection to the "Cosby Suite", and before I am again accused of just coming up with this: I have been suggesting that Blizzard's treatment of the Night Elves has been sexist for years and you can look over my past work, including on this forum (and in this thread) if you want the evidence of that.

The complaint as well as several Blizzard employees now coming out with their stories has also made clear that a part of this toxic work culture was a pervasive culture of retaliation and hostility to criticism. "No negativity in the dojo" by now has become a meme, but if episodes from the treatment of the developers as rockstars to the sidelining of quality assurance, to instances where people were forced to write essays to justify their vacation requests are any indication, it's that the company adopted a petty, vindictive attitude towards criticism - and it's no wonder that it spilled out into statements like "do you guys not have phones?", "you think you do, but you don't", and of course the answer to a Night Elf fan's question about what they have left after Teldrassil: "a nice pile of ashes". Sure, I could give the benefit of the doubt on any of these statements - maybe they weren't related, but.. I rather doubt it.

The Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission, or COSO, promulgated the internal control framework regarded as the gold standard by global business and by organizations whose members focus on auditing internal controls such as the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), the Institute of Internal Auditors (IAA), and the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA). The COSO framework establishes the Control Environment, the "tone at the top" as they put it (and as the profession as a result understands it) as the most important aspect of any enterprise's system of internal control. That's because the way management and senior leadership comport themselves and the messages they send cascade through the rest of the organization and have the power to undo any and all good work done in every one of the other four components. The key takeaway is that the company's culture touches and influences every part of the enterprise.

For our purposes? That includes its products.

So, it is facially ridiculous then to claim that the treatment that the Night Elves experienced, as WoW's premiere female-facing race, was uninfluenced by the sexist, racist, exclusionary and retaliatory work culture depicted in the DFEH lawsuit. Culture is again, pervasive - and again, we are aware that senior management in WoW's creative development team were directly responsible, and per COSO we should expect that their attitudes were reflected on their teams.

But, isn't Blizzard corrective action? Well, I've been following their reaction. I listened to the investor calls and am familiar with the back and forth on this matter as it has unfolded. Broadly - Activision-Blizzard has been doing three things:

1. They have consulted a law firm that is not independent from their company, Wilmer-Hale, to do a policies and practices review.

The fact that they hired a law firm and not an independent Big 4 or global accounting firm with extensive internal control auditing experience tells me all I need to know about the seriousness of this action. They're doing the bare minimum to stay out of court. If they were serious about actually fixing the issue, they would have hired a firm better equipped to perform tests of design and operating effectiveness on their policies with an eye to actually mitigating operational and reputational risks.

2. They have removed certain members of senior leadership

This is a step in the right direction, and the most impactful of these changes in my opinion is the removal of J. Allen Brack. That provides a clear statement that ignoring the issue is not acceptable. Unfortunately, that's all I've seen in the way of substantive action taken to address the culture that these men created, with an eye to the pervasive impact of culture. The most I've heard following that are vague statements about inclusion and diversity - wrapped in the familiar sort of corporate waffling (and this was really evident to me on the earnings call Q&A) that accompanies client 'responses' on audit calls that I receive when I've asked a question that they have no answer to.

3. They have removed references to responsible parties, crass jokes, removed the /spit emote, and beefed up in-game moderation.

The last of these is substantive, but the rest of it looks more performative to me than anything else, like it's something done to give the appearance of action when again, I have seen next to nothing that tells me anything about changes to the company culture that the DFEH described. With the /spit emote, my understanding is that this change was a response to a popular streamer's use of the emote as a protest against people who brought store mounts - a statement against changes to Blizzard's monetization policies, and while improving moderation to prevent harassment in-game was sorely needed, along with developer comments that people now boycotting Blizzard are "part of the problem" - I can't help but to detect a rather toxic narrative, and it's on this last point that I want to expand.

Blizzard's development team actively created and encouraged toxic behavior in the fanbase. They split us into teams, their marketing going back to forever ago told members of the Alliance and the Horde to hate each other. They invited a man to sling homophobic slurs at Alliance players from the stage of Blizzcon, and they intentionally created a situation where both factions felt that they were hurting because of favoritism to the other faction - which cascaded into open hatred between those playerbases. They promoted intrafaction hatred as well, and are on the record as stating that when they see this kind of disagreement, they know they did well. They established a playable-race genocide as the thing that half of their playerbase to defend, and then constructed the story to make the victims of such forgive or condone the perpetrators, and they to this day mock, belittle, and treat-as-scum their own customers.

These same people do not get to lecture the players that they performed these serial acts of manipulation on about toxicity or how they are "part of the problem". The development culture IS the problem, and the toxicity that we are experiencing now is for the most part a monster of their creation - and that's just when we go to talk about lore.

They have also not once apologized, for any of this, outside of implementing mechanical changes that were called out by PTR testers over a year ago, in what is by now the fulfillment of a pattern of ignoring feedback and then implementing it well after the impacted systems have done their damage. What does this tell me? Nothing good if I'm hoping that the culture outlined in the DFEH's complaint will actually subside.

So do I see meaningful change or expect it at this point? No, not with the actions taken and not taken so far, and certainly not with this attitude as it combines with the economics of this game, which itself is a detailed and separate conversation that I may have another day. Now, you could say that I'm being unfair and expecting immediate change - cultural changes may not something that's terribly visible to me, and that's fair enough. But to that I will reply that with a company that is as bankrupt when it comes to my ability to trust them as this one is - I will believe in meaningful change when I see it.

I understand that players are not as affected as the development team. We were not directly attacked by the people responsible, but the culture absolutely impacted our experience too. We are a party to this conversation, and we deserve fair consideration, and not the open contempt that we instead got over the last decade, and seem to continue to receive.
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