For those of you that live on Instagram and have never met a cheeto-eating basement dweller, Blizzard are a gaming company that have developed some of the most popular titles over the last 20 years including Starcraft, Hearthstone and, of course, World of Warcraft. These games are popular all over the world. Starcraft launched the e-sports industry; World of Warcraft is perhaps one of the most popular and enduring games the world has ever seen. The perception of Blizzard was generally favorable for many years. This week Blizzard managed a PR fuck-up of epic gamer proportions, when it banned multiple people that showed support to the protesters in Hong Kong.
A Hearthstone player going by the name of Blitzchung gave an interview on a Taiwanese programme in a gas mask and shouted pro-Hong Kong slogans. He was later banned for breaching Blizzard’s community rules specifically the rule against offending “a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damag[ing] Blizzard’s image.” Additionally, the two casters on the livestream were also disavowed by Blizzard as a result of the player’s words, which seems rather unfair given that they had no idea what the person they were interviewing was actually going to say – that is, without assuming prescience. To add insult to injury, members of an inter-collegiate Hearthstone team were immediately banned after they held up a piece of cardboard reading “Support Hong Kong.”
Both of these actions have gone down like a lead balloon in the wider gaming community that has interpreted these actions as efforts to ensure that the company does nothing to offend mainland Chinese sensibilities at the expense of freedom of speech. Reddit communities such as r/Blizzard and r/Hearthstone have been dominated with some high-quality memes showing Blizzard as China’s little bitch. Go and take a look. Furthermore, furious Blizzard associates and employees have responded by distancing themselves from the company or covering up a rather ironic plaque in Blizzard HQ that reads “all voices matter.”
This issue ties into wider problems that Western companies have experienced when operating with the Chinese market in mind. In the US, a National Basketball Association manager tweeted in support of Hong Kong and immediately faced the wrath of China’s state broadcaster who threatened to pull their contract with the NBA. NBA representatives rapidly rowed back and disassociated themselves from the tweet. Google came under fire for “Project Dragonfly”, a search engine designed to work behind the Great Firewall. During the project, it surreptitiously dropped one of its key mottos, “Don’t be Evil.”
China possesses economic might that most nations, bar the US, can only dream of. The past and present of Chinese economic development is intertwined with the Chinese government, a one-party autocracy that is considerably more oppressive than others. With this clash of cultures in mind, companies migrating from the West are often faced with the prospect of having to compromise whatever ethical code they may have used in order to make a profit, hence Project Dragonfly. Other examples of companies wilfully ignoring the ethical implications of their work include Microsoft, with their development of AI for facial recognition in concert with Chinese partners. AI for image recognition can be used for multiple nefarious purposes of surveillance and repression, but the attraction of wealth is more than enough to settle whatever moral qualms Microsoft may have had. China is now a world leader in this technology.
It is important to point out, perhaps controversially, China is rightly free to operate as it wishes. China is a sovereign state, and the West should not attempt to interfere with the Chinese government. Fiddling with sovereignty has been a terrible experiment for the last 20 years of Western foreign policy, leading to widespread disaster in almost every case. However, the current position of Western companies presents two issues, appeasement and abetment.
In order to maintain their access to the markets in China, companies such as Blizzard are willing to appease China by silencing critics in the West in return for potential economic benefits. This is not acceptable. China must not be allowed to leverage power through economic manipulation of ethically malleable companies.
Companies must also not abet China. Companies such as Microsoft must accept moral responsibility for aiding the Chinese government’s goal of information totalitarianism over its population. Companies should avoid working on projects that are likely to be ethically dubious and if they do, should be forced to accept some form of penalty. Perhaps a moral tax as a practical means of dissuasion.
Companies have an opportunity to do the right thing. They won’t, but wouldn’t it be good if they did.
Make Xi Jinping Winnie the Pooh again