An Open Letter to Mike Morhaime
[personal data excised]
4 July 2014
P.O. Box 18979
Irvine, CA 92623
Dear Mr. Morhaime,
Recently I received an email inviting me to participate in the alpha test of the forthcoming Blizzard game Heroes of the Storm. This is my first alpha invitation in almost ten years of playing Blizzard games, but I have chosen to decline that invitation. My World of Warcraft subscription has also lapsed, my Warlords of Draenor preorder has been cancelled, my Diablo 3 auction items have been allowed to rot away with the closing of the game’s auction house, and I have uninstalled Blizzard’s games from both my home computers and my tablet. I am writing to you to elucidate on why I made this decision, and in the hopes that change may be effected that will mend my relationship with Blizzard Entertainment as a gamer and a consumer.
I am aware that Rob Pardo has recently departed his post as Chief Creative Officer at Blizzard, but while he was still with the company he gave a talk at MIT Media Lab. The message he sent during that talk was that Blizzard’s priority in developing games is engaging gameplay and mechanics, rather than focusing on the story. That’s a valid decision to make, and the company has made some of the most fun games I have ever played and earned their laurels the world over.
Those fun games have increasingly poor storytelling, but my problems with the narrative of Diablo 3 took a backseat because I always played it with my best friend and we babbled our way through the game anyway. I came to Diablo 3 to enjoy the experience of clicking things to death and collecting loot with my friend. When I originally came to World of Warcraft it was with a keen interest in Warcraft 3’s story and a desire to see it continue. I played on roleplaying servers throughout my subscription and enjoyed the community of likeminded lore enthusiasts, but as the cohesion of Warcraft’s storyline deteriorated, my focus turned toward my friends and the community of role-players. As my friends left the game—and I left my guild over an incompatibility of personalities—the shine came off of World of Warcraft, though I still expected to return for the expansion. It seemed that all at once I had fallen out of love with Azeroth, because my friends were elsewhere.
Because if what I was seeking was community, then the gameplay—excellent as it was—mattered less. My playthrough of Reaper of Souls ended up on hold because my best friend and I made a sidebar to Mass Effect to play in parallel and swapped tales of our exploits every night. That didn’t happen with Blizzard games anymore—the drive to discuss what I’d been up to in the game and how it made me feel. He was still raiding and should have had things to say about Siege of Orgrimmar; we should have had something to talk about where Reaper of Souls was concerned. Occasionally there was a nugget of greatness, but even talking about my own avatar it was rare that the vignettes I related were about a character I felt resembled me. And while I can empathize easily with characters who have nothing of me in them, it wears a little thin to see the same themes emerging in Blizzard’s writing.
Mr. Pardo, when asked specifically about diversity in Blizzard games, commented “I wouldn’t say that’s really a value for us. It’s not something that we’re against either, but it’s just not something that’s … something we’re trying to actively do.”
Dustin Browder, game director of Heroes of the Storm also espoused a similar viewpoint. When he was pressed about some of the costuming decisions for the female heroes, he brushed it off, saying “We’re not sending a message. Nobody should look to our game for that.”
When Blizzard’s emphasis is on engaging gameplay over engaging story, it’s easy to dismiss these concerns as unimportant or even to see them as a political or social issue. What Pardo and Browder fail to recognize is that by not acknowledging these issues, they are in fact sending a message: that somehow, including a wider variety of portrayals of women or incorporating diversity in other aspects is politicizing their game. I don’t think that’s true. I certainly don’t believe it’s truer than the notion that excluding these groups doesn’t send a message.
Women and people of color are present in Blizzard’s player base, and are underrepresented as the heroes of Blizzard’s games. When they are represented, there often seems to be a catch—the characters in World of Warcraft who are black are black dragons and often turn out to be villainous. Diablo 3 had the mother-daughter team of Adria and Leah, but Adria was a manipulative villain and Leah’s life and perhaps even soul was sacrificed to make way for the coming of Diablo.
Blizzard’s team is incredibly excited for the upcoming Warlords of Draenor. It’s going to be cool, they’ve promised enthusiastically. It’s going to be nothing but cool, really, but the trouble is that what the development team thinks is cool and worthy of inclusion in Warlords comes across as juvenile. It’s all very comic-book, down to the time traveling alternate-reality premise of the expansion itself.
And comic books and time travel and building motorcycles are all cool. I won’t deny that. They’re cool like cupcakes are delicious, but sometimes I don’t want another cupcake. Sometimes I’d settle for another flavor of cupcake, and we were promised one in Yrel, the female draenei who has been compared to Joan of Arc. However, this seems to a lack understanding of Joan of Arc’s narrative; she is martyred by more powerful men. I hope Yrel’s story ends differently. In an alpha build, it was revealed that we first meet her while she’s imprisoned by orcs and rescue her. There was dialogue written that insinuates she may have been raped during that imprisonment. Maraad uses the word “defiled.” She contests the usage of the word, though not, specifically, the insinuations of what happened to her, and we are meant to accept he’s being wrongheaded and leave it at that. We have been told over and over that orcs value their females no less highly than their males, but we really don’t see many women among the eponymous Warlords.
It’s a little hard to appreciate the cool bits when the scaffolding to hold those up is increasingly distasteful to me. These tropes aren’t new, either; comic book fans would recognize them in a heartbeat, and there’s a reason for that, which Pardo explains: “most of our developers are guys who grew up reading comic books.” There is nothing wrong with enjoying comic books. However, as adults they should be able to look at the properties they enjoyed, and probably continue to enjoy with a critical eye. That analysis should go beyond saying the representation of women in comics is “offensive to, I think, some women.” There are three words in the middle of that statement that probably should get the axe: comic books are offensive to women, and their poor representation has begotten more poor representation, but in neither case is that excusable. The comic book community is going through its own coming of age now, because like video games they have demanded to be taken more seriously and must also accept that they are subject to more in-depth criticism if they are to be considered as an artistic medium. The comic-reading audience, like gamers, have grown more sophisticated. If comics and games do not also grow more sophisticated to keep pace with the taste of their audience, then that audience will turn to other avenues of entertainment.
Gaming in general—and Blizzard Entertainment in specific—would be well served in the pursuit of retaining a diversified base by diversifying their development and writing team. Games development seems to be like a walled garden, tended by groundskeepers who come overwhelmingly from the same background. When asked why Blizzard didn’t hire more women, Mr. Pardo responded “I just don’t get the applications.” It is difficult to believe that women are not pursuing games development, and even more difficult to believe that the women who want to tell their stories through the medium of games have not put their names out to offer to a company as large, visible, and well-respected as Blizzard Entertainment. That they don’t want to work on the world’s most successful MMO. Women and people of color are asking for access to the garden so that they, too, may sow the seeds of their ideas.
While Blizzard has recently chastised the IeSF, leading them to overturn a ruling that barred female players from entry to a Hearthstone tournament, the company still has work to be done. The comments made by Mr. Pardo and Mr. Browder, speaking as employees of Blizzard Entertainment, seem to imply that representing people like me will never be a priority to the company. They seem to be suggesting I go elsewhere. I have sought other avenues of entertainment, but if Blizzard makes the choice and commitment to reflect the diversity of their fans in the worlds and games they create, I will happily return to that fanbase.
CC: C. Metzen; D. Browder; CM team D3/WOW/HS