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Activision-Blizzard's Chinese-censorship, and why I don't want to support them any longer

(Image credit: Reddit)

Activision is a scummy company. The reason it seems to avoid the same kind of ire as companies like EA probably stems from the fact its talented developers at studios like Treyarch, Infinity Ward, and Blizzard Entertainment consistently produce high-quality games, almost without fail. Activision also employs some pretty underhanded tactics to avoid the same sort of controversy as some of its contemporaries, such as adding pay-to-win loot boxes to Call of Duty Black Ops IIII, long after reviews shipped.

Overwatch's Mei loves democracy.

These sorts of ethical questions can be considered subjective. The value of loot boxes certainly rests on the individual, and clearly people are buying them in droves or they wouldn't be included. That debate is entirely separate from what Activision-Blizzard did this week, however.

I love(d) this company. My old band was aired live at the first Blizzcon event to an audience of hundreds of people. I have more than 10,000 hours played in World of Warcraft during the past 15 years. I dropped out of high school to kill Nefarian, instead of taking my exams. I have hundreds of hours in Diablo, Heroes of the Storm, and Overwatch. I had my preorder in for the Warcraft III remake. I have spent thousands of British pounds over the years on these games, merchandise, and books.

Like most, I've suspected for a while that Activision was devouring Blizzard, but I've been naively hoping the company would retain its independence from the wider Activision, which seems to have nothing but contempt for both its customers and employees that support civil liberties.

Activision-Blizzard not only crossed a line this week, it blew it up with a nuclear warhead. It's with some heartbreak that I simply cannot support this company anymore.

Bowing to dictators

In case you missed it, Blizzard banned a Hearthstone champion esports player this week, stripping his winnings to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, while also firing two commentators simply for being nearby to the incident in question. The reason? He voiced support for Hong Kong's human rights movement in a post-match interview.

In a sane company, he might've picked up a couple of match suspensions at most.

The Chinese government is aggressive with its censorship of cultural information it finds embarrassing, banning entire companies from operating from the lucrative region. South Park was banned as well this week, after airing an episode that mocked the Chinese government's censorship. The creators offered this "apology," further mocking them.

Leveraging an aggressively vague terms of service passage that bans esports players from bringing the "company into disrepute," Activision-Blizzard delivered blitzchung's incredibly harsh punishment, publically bent the knee to Chinese censorship, and posted a blog post full of complacent ignorance for the implications of its actions.

Even if blitzchung broke Blizzard's vague rules, in a sane company, he might've picked up a couple of match suspensions at most, maybe even a few months worth of banning. However, the fact that they stripped his winnings and fired the two commentators conducting the interview simply for being there speaks less about its arbitrary rules and more about capitulation in exchange for Chinese dictatorial money.

Huge, deserved backlash

Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, meets Chinese dictator-in-chief Xi Jinping. This might be Photoshopped ... but it's hard to tell.

Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, meets Chinese dictator-in-chief Xi Jinping. This might be Photoshopped ... but it's hard to tell.

Since Blizzard's "ruling," the internet exploded with support for blitzchung, the Streissand Effect realized in full. You could argue that Activision-Blizzard has generally suffered from slipping faith for a while, at least on the games side of things. This includes loot box controversy, pay-to-win elements appearing in Call of Duty, and the tone-deaf announcement of a Chinese-made Diablo spinoff mobile game at Blizzcon. However, these were all game-related essentially, and we expect publishers to degrade the user experience to make a quick buck. Degrading the call for human rights is another matter entirely.

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Most of the Blizzard-oriented subreddits either have megathreads dedicated to the topic or are in complete meltdown, particularly in the case of /r/hearthstone. The wider internet has also begun immortalizing Activision-Blizzard's appeasement of evil in memes, many of which take aim at China's chief dictator, Xi Jinping.

Blizzard isn't the first, nor will it be the last, company to bow to pressure from the Chinese. The NBA bowed to pressure over a team manager voicing support for the Hong Kong rights movement, forcing apologies and censoring journalists from asking questions about it. Apple also dropped the Taiwanese flag emoji from its keyboard to appease China.

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The mainstream media has also begun discussing the wider implications of Chinese investiture in Western companies, forcing their Draconian laws in exchange for access to China's incredibly lucrative market.

Various popular game companies, including Path of Exile's Grinding Gear Games, Fortnite's Epic Games, and others, have varying portions of their companies owned by China's ridiculously powerful Tencent tech company. Tim Sweeney of Epic Games recently stated that as long as he remains the controlling shareholder of Epic Games, the company wouldn't censoring Fortnite esports players' opinions. I would truly love to see someone test Sweeney's statement in practice, however.

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China is a vast market for Activision-Blizzard, which is very successful in Asia and has interlocking investments from various firms, including NetEase. I would have at least paused at how much cash is actually worth selling out the spirit of freedom we enjoy in democratic societies. Activision-Blizzard, however, hasn't.

Blitzchung noted in a statement that he risks losing four years of his life grinding Hearthstone esports, but to stay silent risks losing Hong Kong forever. From that statement:

Even though it seemed that I had wasted four years of time, I have something more important in my heart – if we lose the movement, Hong Kong will end forever.

Every voice matters, eh?

Source: Reddit (Image credit: Source: Reddit)

Outside Blizzard, an Orc statue stands proudly above a plaque that reads "every voice matters." Blizzard employees outraged and incensed have since covered up the statement, which is a powerful reminder of how much the company has changed under Activision and its shareholders' insatiable greed. Blizzard employees have staged a walkout over the decision, too.

This is about putting a spotlight on how sickeningly Activision-Blizzard has behaved.

I fully expect Activision to blacklist me (maybe Windows Central) for writing this article, which might seem a big risk considering how much traffic we do related to the company's games. If the Chinese censors are worth their salt, I risk being banned from the entire country as well, who knows? Moreover, who cares? This is nothing compared to what Hong Kong citizens stand to lose by remaining silent.

This is about putting a spotlight on how sickeningly Activision-Blizzard has behaved. All I can do is use my modest platform to amplify the voices of those who are rightfully angry. What Activision-Blizzard has done here is not acceptable and runs antithetical to the very essence of human rights and basic civil liberties. It represents a wider sickness in capitalism that is complex, and frankly depressing to unravel. You would have hoped video game companies could be better about this, but some are apparently not.

https://twitter.com/JezCorden/status/1181910637858959360?s=20

I'll leave you with the closing statements from Tommy, one of the broadcasters Blizzard fired simply for being near blitzchung when the "incident" occurred. His statement can (and should) be read in full here but here's an excerpt:

You have your business considerations, I have my principles, even if the broadcast accounts for most of my income ... I don't know where to go after four years of hard work. But I really can't agree with you. Finally, I want to send a word of Blizzard. #EveryVoiceMatters

Update October 13, 2019: Blizzard has reduced its punishment for Blitzchung from a 12-month ban down to a 6-month ban, and won't remove him from the Hearthstone Grandmasters. Also, Blizzard has given his winnings back, noting that while he violated Blizzard's vague rules, he hadn't cheated in the competition. This is a welcome development, but Blizzard's denial that this was about appeasing China, while still leveraging an aggressive punishment for the presenters still speaks of capitulation to a violent dictatorship for money. It will be hard for me to ever see Blizzard in a positive light, knowing this.

Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

43 Comments
  • Whatever, I enjoy their games so I'm going to keep playing them. I applaud them for not wanting people to use them as a stage to voice their political opinions.
  • Human rights aren't a matter of opinion, you small-minded idiot.
  • I'm only interested in Azerothian politics when I play WoW, not China being censored from watching Family Guy. Thanks
  • And if you're sooo passionate over this, I suggest a deep dive into other companies that you cherish or rely on and prepare to be surprised
  • yo big brain, i wrote in the article this isn't about moral superiority. global captalism is virtually inescapable unless you go and live in the forest, and i openly admit i ain't about to go and do that. reading comprehension is hard, but having any semblance of shame seems even harder for some.
  • I merely skimmed over the fact you're boycotting (big man!) and that's really it, but glad to see you resort to reading comprehension insults
  • Hey, rld082982, if that is your real name, how much is Activision/China paying you to patrol for these sorts of articles and troll them?
  • all the money
  • nah it just bugs me when people talk shit without even reading what i wrote, then attempt to decide my position for me cus they have such a huge hardon for arguing on the internet. you think authoritarianism is cool and edgy, i get it. hopefully one day you'll grow out of it.
  • Warcraft is better without you, you idiot.
  • found the paid troll
  • Of course human rights are a matter of opinion. The mere fact that they didn't exist a couple of hundreds of years ago and that they are continuing to evolve to include more marginalised groups of the years prove that. They are by definition a matter of public opinion.
  • we also didn't know gravity existed a few hundred years ago. that's no longer a matter of opinion. this is dumbdumb logic.
  • I'm sorry Jez, but the statement you just made is even more dumb-dumb logic. Gravity has always been there, whether we know it exists or not. Human rights is something we invented, it won't exist without enough public opinion supporting it. A scientific law (something describing an aspect of how we think reality works) is not the same as ethical or moral laws (something describing an aspect of how we think reality SHOULD be). You just can' t mix those two to make an argument about either, because they are genuinely different. Still, I do agree with your article here, as I am one of those that share the public opinion on the necessity of human rights. Just a shame you yourself seem to be very harsh in your criticism towards those disagreeing with you. Kind of contradicts your entire statement on freedom of opinion...
  • And yet Blizzard is an American company. And America is all about freedom, free speech etc, right? So what, it's OK for them to act the complete opposite to those values in order to protect their Chinese bank balance?
  • How is a human right a political stance
  • People can voice opinions, political or not.
  • I agree that it is completely unacceptable that they used a gaming forum to promote the rioters in Hong Kong. The thing ths many in the West don't understand is that for China the single most important thing is unity because of the huge damage that separatist movements have caused to it in the past. Supporting Hong Kong rioters would be equivalent of China openly supporting rioters in America that wanted california to be independent. Having said this I dint see how firing the presenters as well makes any sense unless they also promoted the rioters.
  • In Hong Kong they are not separatists. They accept that china owns the territory. They only ask for the autonomy and democracy which were promised at time of handover.
  • They didn't promote the riots, they got fired cus Blizzard was scared of the Chinese thought police. Freedom sounds like a tough concept for you.
  • 1. They are not separatists. They "PROTESTERS" have stated this already.
    2. States have rights in the USA. If there are protestors wanting to separate it is their right to do so. If enough people agree it will happen once its voted upon. Other than Trump we don't have dictators forcing states to stay in the UNION.
    3. The tournament player had every right to say what he wanted. Repercussions can be expected of course if their is a violation of policy but Blizzard/Activision just lost their flipping minds no thinks to the disgusting censorship from mainland China. Its not our problem here outside of the "The Great Firewall of Lies!".
    4. I look forward to the world punishing them for their punitive measures.
    5. Remember Tiananmen Square!
  • Such a complicated issue. I hate what Blizzard did to blitzchung. I generally hate what they have done as far as monetization. And, I thought BfA was a bad expansion. But what does boycotting them do? It sends a message, I suppose, if enough people do it. But it doesn't make us morally superior if we are still gaming on PCs and buying iPhones and iPads mostly made in China, does it? We are putting actual money into the pockets of a regime that commits horrible human rights atrocities. Hopefully this will make us take a harder look at what rampant consumerism has wrought and start a discussion on what we can actually do versus symbolic gestures such as a boycott of Actiblizz.
  • I wrote in the article that this isn't about feeling morally superior, global capitalism is inescapable unless you go and live up a mountain. It's just for me, quitting WoW is a small gesture to express my disgust at Blizzard, but also just a case of, I'd feel dirty continuing to play them knowing what Blizzard was, and is now. I don't expect others to follow suit, the article title was not chosen by me. Those games are made by hundreds of people who DESERVE to get paid. I have a modest platform here however, and I'd feel like I wasn't doing my job properly if I didn't amplify the indignation over this, even if it ultimately changes nothing. The world is a sad, fucked up place in general, but this whole thing touches on the corrupt fringes that are getting gradually worse in our societal systems. It's ultimately on me, using games as a way to remain apathetic for the brief time I'm alive on this rock. Blizz burst that bubble this week for a lot of people I think.
  • I agree. I do hope that you and others with a platform can at least get a dialogue started about what we can do as consumers, especially tech consumers, in regards to China's domination in the manufacturing sector. Kudos for putting your money where your mouth is. I respect that a great deal.
  • ty, ultimately its a drop in the ocean for actiblizz like i wrote, it's more about amplifying the issue so activision doesn't, once again, get away with ignoring it.
  • Agreed. You need to take a stance, small as it might be, for what you believe in.
  • I suggest you do some research on the matter of those supposed calamities. Most of these are simply not true and pushed by the US in order to undermine its main challenger.
  • how do you know they aren't true? your emotions?
  • Their great leader says so.
  • It's interesting to see just how much the entertainment industry as a whole has been altered since filmmakers and studios started getting blacklisted decades ago. The US opened trade with China with the expectation that China would start to look more capitalist as its people grew in prosperity, but the US didn't expect that our industries would start to take on aspects of communism. I'd love to see how this is going to play out in the history books... If the subject is allowed to be printed at all, that is.
  • You are not correct in your boycott but you go boy. The Hong Kong situation is a psychological operation by the US against mainland China using the HK people as pawns. The protests are sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy and other CIA linked NGOs. Go back to games bud. Geopolitics is a little too tricky for you at this point.
  • Sounds like it's too tricky for you as well. Edit: I regret it but I responded impulsively to your post, but it was too condescending to not.
  • Is the truth hard for you to swallow as well? Seems many have that problem.
    It's ok.
    Game on.
  • Game on? You mean, you are not just an individual with an opinion?
  • Wait, what on earth are you talking about?
    How about we stick to the actual context of this discussion. Regardless of your position on what is happening in Hong Kong, do you believe your employer should be able to fire you for expressing your personal opinion, purely because it conflicts with the stance of a foreign or even your own government? For me that's a big no no. Now if that individuals opinion was seeking to oppress the rights and freedoms of others, then yep I'm all for taking action.
  • i got this theory that people who think authoritarianism is cool have really tiny dicks
  • Wow that is taking a principled stand! I'm not nearly invested in Blizzard as you but I did uninstall Battlenet and will never support them again unless they correct the error of their ways. China's blackmailing of companies and people who support the freedom fighters in Hong Kong and elsewhere is a disturbing trend but it is heartening to see the push back that is rising. And also a little disheartening to see crappy companies like Blizzard and Activision sucking up the way they are--they will be on the wrong side of history.
  • Good. They deserve a boycott. Take a knee, Jez.
  • Call of Duty = Communism
  • Another thing to think about related to this controversy and other recent topics is just how much power is China gaining in the gaming industry. I think that with stakes in Epic, arguably one of the most successful game companies (even if just for one game), and their presence in mobile, these kind of controversies are going to become increasingly common. Me I have plenty reasons already to not buy games from Epic and now additional reasons not to play Blizzard games. Which are pretty overrated anyway IMHO.
  • Lenin or Stalin once said: "We will hang capitalists and they will happily sell us the rope." We've been happily selling ourselves to communists since a long time ago.
  • Thank you Jez for actually having the balls to write this and to actually draw a line in the sand as to when a company has gone too far. Keep up the good work.
  • Blizzards practices have been terrible for awhile. But even if people can argue the player getting banned was legitimate. Firing the 2 commentators had 0 grounds whatsoever. That part their clearly shows China is behind the events that have happened. Absolutely clearly. Blizzard was once a great gane company. Nowadays they make crap games with Loot boxes. And even Diablo 3 was average at best. Path Of Exile for example was better than any diablo game ever made. But alas. I totally agree with Jez and applaud him. It's hard to let something go that you love. It really is. But when a company has been taken over and eaten rotten from the inside, then it's time to stop supporting it. I commend Jez for making his stand. I normally hate politics and games coming together. But the pure fact the 2 commentators were fired just for being in the same room as him shows how fascist the company has become. OH and I've just deleted Hearthstone from my Android phone.