Monday, September 21, 2020

Moral Minesweeper - Ethics in Game Buying

A thread of thought has been making it's way through my RSS feed as of late. It started with Wolfyeyes initially, then to Roger at Contains Moderate Peril, and onward to Telwyn at GamingSF. It concerns a common topic, one might even call it evergreen. It's the role of ethics in consumption in a capitalist society.

The last time I visited this topic was last year, when Blizzard found it wise to light itself on fire to please their betters in China. It was the Hearthstone fiasco where a professional player used their platform to support the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Blizzard reacted harshly. They handed out a suspension longer than they give to actual cheaters, six months to be precise. Blizzard's messaging was also terrible: making it clear that disruptions to Blizzard's money streams were the company's sole concern. 

I can't speak to how the world at large reacted. Blizzard's already declining reputation as a maker of quality video games was certainly hurt, but the actual financial impact was small, at least in the short and mid-term. Will there be a long term affect? Who knows?

Taking a page form the Buddha's playbook, I can't control what other people do. Shitty people probably won't stop being shitty anytime soon. The people who work for those shitty people still have rent due to next month. And people will still buy the products of ethically bankrupt corporations. 

And that circles us back around to the topic at hand. As John/Jane Doe what is our place in all of this? I don't play Blizzard products anymore. In fact I don't even have Battle.net installed on my computer. But as I wrote back during that whole mess, this isn't a formal boycott. I don't have any interest in a 'political gesture' that literally no one will ever see, least of all those that I'm displeased with. 

But conversely, I'm also not inclined to pretend that Blizzard's downward spiral hasn't affected my enjoyment of their products. The same perspective that informed their view on Blitzchung's protests on their live stream, also informs the rest of their product stack. World of Warcraft is so hyper-focused on keeping players playing that they often forget to make anything worth playing. The Warcraft III Remaster is a mess that's flat out worse than the edition it replaced. WoW Classic is a perfectly great experience ... that had to be pried out of Blizzard's cold, dead hands.

It's not a Blizzard specific phenomenon. If you weigh your game down with endless monetization, it usually compromises the gameplay experience itself. If you endlessly crunch your staff, you usually end up with a game that's had all the soul sucked out of it. If you launch a game before it's ready to meet your quarterly guidance, you end up with a game that may very well not work at all.

I'm not so naive as to believe that this is always the case. Of course you can list products that had a tortured development and nonetheless came out pristine. But that's the exception rather than the rule. It's hard to produce something great when your production is flawed. For every Red Dead Redemption 2, there's a L.A. Noire and a dozen or more other projects that abused their staff and came out the worse for it. 

My gut instinct: you don't need to keep a list of every game that might have been made under ethically dubious pretenses. You don't need to articulate an absolute line a developer/publisher can cross before you won't buy a product. I genuinely think that these matters eventually sort out. I don't mean they sort themselves out, mind. Talented workers push back against overbearing bosses and use their leverage to improve work conditions. The same workers leave the AAA grind and start their own companies. Journalists expose bad behavior and become the nightmare of these company's recruiters. And yes, the ever temperamental fan base, will occasionally roar into action and end a few careers over the most egregious, and visible, of the sins.

Things are better. Not everything is better. Progress has never been efficient and it's never pointed in one direction. Sometimes the setbacks are absolutely demoralizing. Victories in this area are rarely given the headlines of the defeats. They certainly aren't given the same emotional bandwidth. 

When this topic comes around, it's easy to try and separate our feelings into silos. Our enjoyment for a game in one, our displeasure with how it was made in another. Should we focus on the meddling of the executives? Or should we focus on supporting the rank and file who actually made the game? I think the dichotomy itself is a mistake. 

Video games are entertainment products. Either they entertain us or they don't. If the behind-the-scenes news of a game affects your enjoyment of it, I see no reason to bury that feeling deep down inside. There's nothing heroic about it. Separating the art from the artist is a mug's game. This stuff doesn't enter our world by way of wormhole. How something is made is inherent to what eventually becomes. Why ignore that? A video game either makes me happy when I play it, or it's worthless. There are no other metrics here. I don't need to qualify a damn thing about the experience that I don't want to qualify.

But, if you buy and enjoy a game you have misgivings with, then you just have to be honest with your feelings on the matter. The scrambled eggs you had this morning have nothing to due with Humpty-Dumpty's fall. You're not complicit in shit. Ubisoft executives aren't sexually harassing an employee for every copy of Far Cry 38 they sell. It's not heroic to beat yourself up about something you can't actually control. It just bleeds away the energy and confidence to do something about matters you can control. If it's not affecting how you feel about the game than that's how it is. There are no gold medals for hating yourself sufficiently.

But my perspective on the matter is an inherently optimistic one. Which is unusual for me. I have a lot of faith that good processes result in good products. Not all the time, just most of the time. Complex process usually work like that. And we all know that making video games is a very complex process.

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