Friday, May 23, 2014

Dear Blizzard, I'm Not Asking For a Quest About Woman's Suffrage or the Stonewall Riots

I fully admit that this post is probably mildly ironic given my previous post, but here we go.

There’s a Polygon article that’s being linked around the web right now, riling up a lot of people, and I admit, it got me riled up to. The gist behind the article is that developers such as Nintendo and Blizzard are not taking a stance on inclusiveness and basically ignoring women, LGBT folk, and other minorities, saying that to focus on those issues would be the antithesis of “fun”.

The author, Todd Harper, gathered his information from a MIT talk with Rob Pardo, Chief Creative Officer, that he attended, as well as a Rock-Paper-Shotgun interview with Dustin Browder, Lead Designer of Starcraft II. So I decided to dig into the source material, because I was really angry at Blizzard’s statements, and I wanted to find out more from the source. Turns out the truth is a bit more nuanced than what Todd Harper wrote up. On the other hand, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for Blizzard, either.

So, I present to you, in full, Rob Pardo’s statements in response to Todd Harper’s question (70:11 to 73:44)
So early on when you were talking about Blizzard's values you were talking about providing the most epic entertainment experience possible and the brand is the currency of the company, and also the idea that taking risks should be safe. I'm wondering if you could talk about the relationship between those frameworks and your perceived audience, and the ability of the company to include socially progressive ideas and content as you develop new things for your games.
I guess I bring that up because you specifically called out Bioware, for example, for being a narrative focused company rather than being a gameplay company, which I guess I would say is pretty true of their last few big titles, but they're also one of the companies that's at the forefront of including more socially relevant content in their stuff, so I wonder if you could talk about how that plays out at Blizzard with that separate focus you discussed?

So when you're saying socially relevant you're saying the things they've done in their storylines and kind of the inclusion of gay characters and things like that?

That's part of it, but it's not just representing diversity in your narrative content, though that's certainly part of it. I think it really comes down to reflecting the diversity of player experiences, specifically diverse players, but also just the fact you have a lot of different people playing your game and reflecting their desires, experiences, contexts in what you're producing.

Yeah, I wouldn't say that's really a value for us, it's not something we're against, either, but it's just not something we're trying to actively do. I'd say that one of the reasons we do sci fi and fantasy is that we're kids at heart. We're not trying to bring in serious stuff, or socially relevant stuff, or actively trying to preach for diversity or do things like that. I think that sometimes it's not necessarily always the right thing to do, it's just how we develop the game.
There's no maliciousness to it, but I'll give you an example where I think sometimes we struggle is our portrayal of women in the game. Because most of our game developers are guys that grew up reading comic books, so what do they draw? They kinda draw oftentimes comic book looking women which is offensive, I think, to some women. It's something that we sometimes have to actively catch ourselves and go, "wait, we need to not make our women characters wear armor that look like Xena or Sonya" or something like that sometimes.
But it's a struggle for us because the diversity within our workplace is unbalanced. And it's not because we don't want more women developers, it's just what the industry is. If you look at the industry it is kind of like that, and it's very hard to oftentimes, just use female game designers as an example because I hire game designers, I just don't get the applications so it becomes challenging for us, I think.

So Rob Pardo's response, "I wouldn't say that's really a value for us, it's not something we're against, either, but it's just not something we're trying to actively do,” was in direct response to Todd Harper’s question about reflecting other players’ experiences. Basically, Rob is arguing they’re just trying to make a video game they want to play, regardless of the social issues going on around them.

I get that, I really do. But it also underscores an important point here, which Rob Pardo made himself, is that it’s not really malicious, they’re just not thinking about it. Rob Pardo’s point about catching themselves is awesome, because it does tell me they understand the problem to an extent, but they have no real mechanisms in place to enforce it. And I totally get his point about not having enough diversity in the workplace, because that would make all of this easier, too.

But that’s where the crux of the problem lies. They’re not thinking about it actively. So when they make those hyper-sexualized comic book-esque women, or when they make most of their characters ultra-masculine power-fantasy males, that’s what they’ve been doing for 25 years. They’ve built up a reflex within their company culture and, to be fair, within most of the game industry, that this is the way you make video games and tell a story. And for those of us on the outside of the straight white male point of view, we find ourselves wanting for someone we can relate to.

Blizzard talks a lot about how they’re gameplay-focused, rather than narrative-focused. That makes a lot of sense in a game like Hearthstone or Heroes of the Storm. There’s pretty much no narrative there, by design. And you could squint and kind of argue that Starcraft and the Warcraft RTS games, the narrative is really a framework to show off the gameplay. But World of Warcraft is a world, with characters, motivations, ideas, and interactions. I could be snarky and say their lack of focus on narrative shows, especially in their Warlords of Draenor storyline, but at the same time I think they’re doing themselves a disservice by claiming that for their Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game.

The thing about building a story or a narrative is that you want to ensure you have characters people can relate to. If your heroes are perfect, or your villains are flat, the story gets old really quick. Immutable personal identity, like gender, sexuality, and race are some ways that folks end up relating to characters. But more importantly, when those aspects are missing from a world, the absence is noticed and makes the world less relatable to the consumer. A world where there are almost no strong female characters? You’ve lost a chunk of your female audience. No gay characters? I can’t relate to that at all; that’s not what my world looks like. Why should I buy into yours?

Rock, Paper, Shotgun had their own interview with Blizzard’s Dustin Browder, where RPS asked Dustin Browder hyper-sexualized female characters in Heroes of the Storm.
You have some interesting alternate outfits for heroes. Roller Derby Nova, especially, caught my eye. On its own, that’s totally fine – just a silly, goofy thing. A one-off. But it got me thinking about how often MOBAs tend to hyper-sexualize female characters to a generally preposterous degree – that is to say, make it the norm, not a one-off at all – and StarCraft’s own, um, interesting focus choices as of late. How are you planning to approach all of that in Heroes?

Well, I mean, some of these characters, I would argue, are already hyper-sexualized in a sense. I mean, Kerrigan is wearing heels, right? We’re not sending a message to anybody. We’re just making characters who look cool. Our sensibilities are more comic book than anything else. That’s sort of where we’re at. But I’ll take the feedback. I think it’s very fair feedback.

I have to add, though, that comics might not be the best point of reference for this sort of thing. I mean, it’s a medium that’s notorious – often in a not-good way – for sexing up female characters and putting them in some fairly gross situations.

We’re not running for President. We’re not sending a message. No one should look to our game for that.

But it’s not even about a message. The goal is to let people have fun in an environment where they can feel awesome without being weirded out or even objectified. This is a genre about empowerment. Why shouldn’t everyone feel empowered? That’s what it’s about at the end of the day: letting everyone have a fair chance to feel awesome.

Uh-huh. Cool. Totally.

Dustin Browder, in his response, states, “We’re not sending a message to anybody. We’re just making characters who look cool.” He contradicts himself in the second sentence. By “just making characters who look cool,” he’s sending a message that those are the characters they think look cool. I mean, sounds kind of silly when I lay it out like that, but at the same time, it absolutely is a message. When the grand majority of your female characters are hyper-sexualized, you’re sending the message that non-hyper-sexualize female characters are not cool.

Again, Dustin Browder’s point, not unlike Rob Pardo’s, is they’re not trying to send a message, and that they’re just trying to make awesome games. But media is a message, whether you want it to be or not. Art reflects society and societal norms. My point above still holds, if there’s no one that you can relate to, it makes it harder for you to enjoy the product, or to find it fun. So again, it’s not something they’re thinking about actively, and it shows.

Now, to be fair, Blizzard has done good things in the past. Just because the higher-ups are dismissive doesn’t mean that everything is terrible. If you look at the Alliance, there’s a few strong female characters around, such as Sky Admiral Catherine Rogers, Grand Admiral Jes-Tereth, and Moira Thaurissan. I can’t speak much to the Horde myself, but I’ve heard there’s a few over there. Granted, they’re not in positions of great power—those are still left to the men-folk, apparently—but it’s a start.

And for gay characters, Blizzard did actually put in a tribute for a guildie of mine, Ghemit the Hunter. His late husband, known as Elloric in-game, has an NPC, which isn’t the sort of action taken by a bigoted company.

Let me be clear: some of the things that Rob Pardo and Dustin Browder said are troubling. We’ve seen in the past by the words of Chris Metzen and his “boys’ trip” comment for Warlords of Draenor that again, they’re not really thinking about this stuff. And even worse were the homophobic remarks by the band LVL 90 ETC in a video that Blizzard had shown at Blizzcon really was hurtful.

Blizzard as a company has a clear pattern of ignorance. Time and time again, that ignorance has played out resulting in hurt and annoyed customers, and at what point do we have to stop pointing it out and just start voting with our feet and dollars? I’m not sure I’m at that point myself, especially given that there aren’t that many companies out there that are any better than Blizzard yet, just less vocal and/or smaller. But I don’t blame folks who decide that this was the straw that broke their back.

At the same time, it’s not terribly hard to make this right. I’m not asking for quests about women’s suffrage, or the Stonewall riots. I’m just asking that we have some sort of respectful representation in-game. Heck, it can even be a villain for all I care. Some dude trying to take over the world, oh, and footnote, his husband died so that’s why he’s so angry. Or more ladies who aren’t scantily-clad and have positions of power. You don’t need to convert all of your characters into nuns, because there are women out there who do like to dress sexily because it empowers them, rather than the sole purpose of making themselves the object of someone else’s desire.

To write off the issue as some developers happen to like comic books and so portray women like they do in comics, or to say it’s difficult because you have no diversity in the workplace are excuses, and not  great ones. I sincerely hope they’re actively looking to fix that, because they have the power to do just that, and to not do it just perpetuates that ignorance and makes it willful, as well.

This isn’t an insurmountable problem. It’s not even that hard to fix. All it takes is to think about it, just a little.

#Inclusiveness, #Blizzard


  1. This comes to mind:

    "Some dude trying to take over the world, oh, and footnote, his husband died so that’s why he’s so angry."

    To be fair, then I imagine some people would be up in arms about how "Blizzard is trying to say being gay makes you evil!"

    1. ROFL, okay, that comic is hilarious, and so true. On the other hand, when your entire world is basically at war constantly or on the verge of war, I would expect, "Home Destroyed, Going On rampage" to be a pretty common backstory :)

      Yeah, I thought about the up in arms about the "being gay makes you evil" thing, but I mean, if we want representation, it really has to be fair. You can't say, "Oh, we want more strong women in games, but oh, they always have to be the good guy!" and expect to be taken seriously. That would be crazy talk.

    2. ~20 male boss characters in SoO, only 4 female. Should be about even :P Especially Paragons since worker/soldier insects are basically always female.

    3. "Especially Paragons since worker/soldier insects are basically always female."

      No, in Mantid lore the only female is the Empress (and a new Empress to replace her) as far as we can tell. We've seen zero indication of any other females.

      Pretty confident all Paragons are male and it would be very unusual for female soldiers to exist and have none of them become female.

  2. Well that's just entirely reasonable.

    That said, I disagree a bit about diversity in the workplace being dismissed as an excuse. The very first thing anyone can do, i.e. "Think about it", I am in complete agreement about, but that's not a permanent change. If every generation of artists has to relearn this-and I can't stress this enough-very valuable lesson, then the problems come right back.

    Diversify the artists and you get diverse art. This cart-horse issue needs more than a bit of thought.

    1. Ah, sorry, I wasn't clear. I agree with you entirely about having to re-teach each generation of workers if you don't hire more diverse staff. The part where it's an excuse is that they aren't hiring more diverse staff. Sure, you don't have many female programmers out there, but there's likely to be plenty of writers/artists, no?

    2. To be fair, Pardo makes it very clear he is talking just about game design staff because that is the staff he is involved in hiring.

      If you look at the game design positions currently up on Blizzard's job listings the requirements are pretty high (although what job requirements aren't these days?) and it seems quite plasusible that there isn't a strong hiring base to work from. The games industry has gotten much better in the past 5-10 years at gender issues and the base of women with the kind of experience Blizzard is looking for may be lacking.
      For reference:

      In general, great post. This gets between the hyperbolic rhetoric on both sides.

    3. In Rob Pardo's words: "But it's a struggle for us because the diversity within our workplace is unbalanced. And it's not because we don't want more women developers, it's just what the industry is. If you look at the industry it is kind of like that and it's very hard to oftentimes just use female game designers as an example, because I hire game designers, I just don't get the applications. So it becomes challenging for us I think."

      If we give him the benefit of the doubt here, he's not hiring as many female game designers because not as many game designer applicants are female. If this is true, then the way to ameliorate this is to encourage more people from diverse backgrounds to get into the industry, especially writing.

  3. I will be honest, I did not read closely your article. I *did* watch the entire Rob Pardo interview. I refuse to get all worked up about this. This is a game. It very occasionally annoys me, but mostly it is fun, and not annoying. I have no intention of bashing Blizzard on PCness. Mary McKinnon (@ngakma) on Twitter.

  4. Had a huge response typed up but blogspot ate it, apparently.

    Generally agree with most things.

    Sexist tendancies in gaming are going to die a slow death at best, though. I'm willing to take it at face value when he says there aren't many female applicants, and in an ideal world, you hire the best for the job with zero gender-based descrimination. Hiring 50% men and 50% women from an 80% men and 20% women pool of applications is just as sexist and isn't in the best interests of the company, as those kinds of restrictions will lower the quality of your employee base and ultimately hurt or cause delays in released products. In an industry that's increasingly competitive, that wouldn't be a very smart thing to do.

    Sexist bias in content specifically is something Blizzard can do a lot to fix. Some thoughts on that:

    Hearthstone - at least 4 female characters instead of 2, or a male and female option for each class. Tyrande, Vereesa, Alleria or Sylvanas, Garona, Moira, Maiev could surely take up 2 spots.

    WoW - Need a few more prominent female characters. For the most part, they even already exist, just need some spotlights. Taoshi and Moira are good examples. Just as importantly, there should be more female villains/bosses. A 5:1 ratio in SoO isn't a good thing.

    StarCraft II - Show off some Jim Raynor butt or chest or cover Kerrigan's rear. Legacy of the Void has potential to be a step in the right direction if it showcases Selendis (or other female protoss) a healthy amount.

    Can't comment on Heroes of the Storm and Diablo doesn't seem too bad.


    While I support gay rights, it's a more difficult issue to tackle. Promoting or acknowledging it has a very real side effect of alienating those who are opposed to it. While I ultimately believe that promoting and acknowledging gay rights is the right direction to go, from a business standpoint it's dangerous to take any stance at all (though they did give you the option for The Day Deathwing Came quest in Badlands). There are many members of religious groups and people in general who are opposed to gay rights which, while unfortunate, could cause a lot of lost customers.

    1. Obviously having a more balanced roster of female and male characters of a wider variety will cause more young women to play games and therefore be interested in game design and will gradually balance out the application pool, but it will take time, and we might not tangibly see its impact for a good 5-10 years.

    2. Yeah, I agree that change is slow. But at the same time, video games are behind other media such as literature, television shows, and movies in terms of representation for both women and LGBT.

      The hiring thing is an interesting question. If you're looking at it purely from a meritocracy POV, I agree with you. If none of those 20% ladies are in the top 20% of the total applicant pool, it makes no sense to hire any of them.

      The trick here comes from the fact that this is a very creative field. What does the top 20% even mean? I think there's something to be said about diversifying viewpoints when doing creative work, especially given we have the exact opposite currently at Blizzard. Not saying hire 50% ladies, but perhaps a couple more would be useful?

      The gay rights thing is, unfortunately, something I agree with you to a certain extent. Again, beside the fact that Television clearly is far ahead of Blizzard on this, inclusion is seen as controversial in a non-trivial subset of the population. On the other hand, non-inclusion is starting to be seen as controversial as well. With things like gay marriage being legalized in 18 states now, and already legal in many other countries around the world, especially in the EU, when is the tipping point where it'll be more costly for them to ignore it than to fix it? I don't have the answer there, but it's an interesting question.

  5. "But it's a struggle for us because the diversity within our workplace is unbalanced. "

    Have to admit I feel that's a total cop out. Literary history is full of men who have managed to write female characters full of personality and flaws. Brecht's Mother Courage managed to get a feminist newspaper named after her in Germany and Shakespeare's Portia has always been one of my favourites.

    Not to mention that all these male designers must have females in their lives to draw on, mothers, sisters, girlfriends.. My husband is a software designer, albeit in the oil industry rather than the gaming one but he understands what I want from female characters in-game and not just because he has to listen to me ranting every time I feel Blizzard get stuck in Victorian literature bouncing from Madonna to Whore and back again.

    The other issue for me is that I would imagine that most women who lead armies share many characteristics with their male counterparts, it's just different anatomy. You write a strong character and choose to make it female.

    1. Yeah, that's one thing I don't quite get. Unless you're writing a sex scene, why not just wholesale replace a male with a female? I mean, sure, there are stereotypes about femininity, but isn't it even more interesting if said character also doesn't fit that mold?

  6. This post left me with a few thoughts, but I'll do my best to be concise.

    1. Sylvanas is a freakin' badass. She was a bad mama before being undeadified, and she's hard as nails now. My first wow character was undead, and despite being a story-ignoring quest-text skipping philistine, I absolutely LOVED Sylvanas, and read every bit of her dialogue. I don't even play wow anymore, but I still consider myself in service to The Dark Lady. She should go in the GG, WP column for Blizzard's female character issue.

    I'm shocked to see all the dodging and excuses from Blizz execs. Not even GOOD dodging and excuses. Comic books are more diverse and inclusive than Mr. Pardo seems to realize. There are women in your life, sir, even if they aren't in your office, and I'm sure a few of them wouldn't object to giving some constructive feedback on dialogue, storylines, or character models. Also, you have a QA department - panel discussions are easy enough to put together.

    I don't want token or representative diversity. I want complex characters who's unique perspectives are the product of their diverse backgrounds, challenges and choices. Race, gender, sexual preference, loyalties and animosities can all be conflict drivers that produce interesting characters for me to interact with. Just don't give me "the gay one." The same goes for what a character wears. WHY is she wearing a chain mail bikini? If the answer makes sense for the character and the setting, go for it, but "because it looks cool" is a cop out.

    I want deep, complex characters motivated by their experience and outlook, who interact with their world and it's inhabitants in ways that make sense and drive the story. I want to understand and empathize with their motivations, whether they are a hero or a villain. Truly diverse characters make a game more engaging and meaningful for me as the player, and that's the goal, right?

    1. Sylvanas is an interesting case. Being killed and resurrected as undead against her will certainly helped shape her character. I really would like to see Blizz do more with her. I think she's a good example of a badass character that respects her gender relatively well and still pulls off the calculating villain role quite nicely.

      And yeah, comic books are actually a bit more progressive these days than even Blizzard is, oddly enough. I mean, don't get me wrong, they take a lot of deserved heat for some of the things they do, but at least there are still bad-ass ladies (albeit still mostly in strange, body-warping poses), and LGBT folks.

      Excellent points on the diverse conflict drivers issue. I wonder if WoW struggles with that because their cast is SO large? Makes it hard to have even big characters to have more than a couple of lines each. Not saying it's an excuse, but for a game like "Last of Us" which focuses on an extremely small cast, you can afford to spend a lot of time building those characters and developing motivations. I find fantasy novels with too many characters suffers from the same problem.

  7. Sad to see this kind of lame excuse being given but then I find Blizzard's narrative development has been lazy of late as well, Warlords of Draenor was a total turn-off for me, and I started in TBC era so should be a sure-fire fan. Regardless of game system pro's and con's I find Bioware and (even) Cryptic's writers do a much better job at writing engaging stories than Blizzard's team is managing - even the Pandaria arc didn't impress me that much despite its slick presentation.

    The company needs to get over the white, male, heavy-metal obsessed cliché for both its fans and its developers and start producing something a little less stereotypical in the story front as well!

    1. Yeah, Blizzard's excuse is that they're not narrative-driven, they're gameplay-driven. Yet they're trying to build a world nonetheless. I think this is what's driven them to make an alternate-universe Draenor, which frankly, is pretty comic-bookish and boring, and does little to forward the narrative.

      So sure, they're not narrative-focused, but frankly I think it's hurting them and their brand.