Once upon a time, on a little World of Warcraft server where I used to play, there was a guild called <LAZERYATTACKPEWPEW>. And that would have been the end of the story – but this was a Roleplaying server, where special rules demanded that guild names accord with the game’s atmosphere of cod-medieval fantasy. One day, the guild’s leader got a letter from a community moderator. which said the guild’s name had been reported for violating the roleplay naming policy and changed accordingly. With a wave of his magic wand, the moderator had given the guild a new name, far more in keeping with the ethos of roleplay: <Sword attack klangklang>.
This was the story that came to mind last week when Fox Van Allen reported on Joystiq that Blizzard’s swear filter had until recently censored 'homosexual' and 'transsexual' but let through 'fag' and 'faggot'. The connection struck me not because the whimsical flouting of policy and the predictable wailing and gnashing of roleplayer teeth that ensued are any way comparable either to the scandal of the swear filter or the hubbub surrounding it, but because it demonstrates how frequently Blizzard are either unwilling or unable to understand the purpose of their own rules. Come with me, traveller, on a journey into the crazy world of Warcraft.
Here’s a sample sentence from Blizzard’s forums: critics have alleged that the works of Charles *%##ens are comparable to Steinbeck’s The G*!@#$% of Wrath in their !###ual overtones. Okay, so pre-war literature is rarely a hot topic on the WoW forums, but frequent users will know all too well how easily its overzealous swear filter can sneak up on you. Unlike the in-game filter, which only recently made the news because a bug left it constantly on, the forum filter was unavoidable since inception. I never used the former, so can’t say much about it, but all forum users were intimately familiar with the latter. Its results weren’t always merely funny but sometimes baffling, even perturbing: it censored ‘gay’, whether or not it was being used in a self-affirming sense, ‘lesbian’ whether or not you were one, and ‘sex’ even in reference to biology.
This kind of thing isn’t exclusive to WoW. Command and Conquer: Generals used to censor, part and whole, the names of international figures like George Bush, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. As if players engaging in a furious debate about the war on terror would stop just because they couldn’t say the name of their chosen mascot. A list of filtered words from Space Marine, meanwhile, provides some gems: “bitchwrinkle”, “laprocket” and “spermspermbag” are clbuttic.
But Blizzard’s brand of bowdlerisation is particularly severe. Last month an old comrade got in touch to report her discovery that Blizzard had banned the word ‘black’ from all guild names. Apparently somebody decided that in the racial powderkeg (?) of the WoW community, even the mere mention of a colour – which happens to be one way in which people with dark skin colour refer to themselves and are referred to by others – was too controversial and inflammatory to permit. Apparently they had also neglected to apply this logic to their own game’s Black Temple.
It’s as if Blizzard and its employees understand the notion that they are supposed to be moral, but don’t really know how. They get the idea, but they can’t grasp the substance. When I played Deus Ex for the first time recently, I decided to role-play in a similar fashion. My J.C. Denton really, really wanted to do good - and was in love with the idea of himself as a saviour in a dark and corrupt world - but was shaky on the specifics. He went around obnoxiously meddling in people's business, causing more harm than good, and walking off with a smug look on his face without ever understanding why everyone was glaring at him. When Sarah Renton the hotel manager’s daughter declared that she was running away, J.C. frowned, chased after her, and brought her back unconscious to her father’s feet. “She doesn’t know what she’s doing,” I imagined him say. “She’ll thank you later.”
This is the company's moral psychopathy: they realise that as a huge multinational company they are supposed to have certain obligations, but consistently fail at meeting them until that failure is finally brought to their attention. Whether it's guild names, swear filters or in-game advertising, their rules - and often, their own enforcement of them - create a sense-free zone. Partly to blame for this is a misguided ideal that lies behind their various policies: that if discussion of an issue is suppressed then that issue will disappear.
That was the reasoning behind 2006’s gay 'harassment' issue, where a player advertising an LGBT-friendly guild was told that “topics related to sensitive real-world subjects…have had a tendency to result in communication between players that often breaks down into harassment.” The unfortunate implication was that it’s a gay player’s fault for being openly gay if others abuse and harass them for it. The same attitude is visible in the faction dynamics of the game. Back in beta, it was once possible for Horde and Alliance to communicate by doing a series of quests to learn each factions ‘common’ language. But when vicious player versus player battles and their heated atmospheres saw that faculty abused, it was removed permanently, never to return except in the guise of RealID, which all but guarantees civility (or guarantees insults won’t matter) because it depends on friendship ties. Even though the game’s ‘ignore’ function allows players to selectively mute each other, the risk of mid-battle trash-talking was considered so great that cross-faction communication was banned even on carebear servers where players can’t kill each other unless they consent to it first. See-no-evil is the continual basis of their approach to community strife.
Maybe this isn’t just innocent blindness; it makes good business sense. Despite its violence and darkness – despite the hyperactive longevity of its cybersex community and the prominent Zettai Ryouiki of its female characters in a surprising proportion of its leg-pieces – WoW is marketed strongly at teens age 13 and up. You rarely have to squat for long in an open chat channel to hear pubescent bitching about school and parents, and instances are often cause either to curse the caprice or marvel at the maturity of the minor in the party. Aggressive bowdlerising appeases the parents who pay the bills, if they ever check, while keeping down the costs of enforcement.
But whatever the reasons, it doesn’t actually prevent abuse, and, worse, in some ways endorses it. To blank out any discussion of ‘controversial topics’ gives the impression of a parent stepping in to tear apart two infant parties equally at fault. But homophobic, racist and sexist abuse are not “controversial topics” bandied about between two sides: they are evil. Any other standpoint tacitly supports their prevalence. In the meantime much legitimate discussion is closed down, and the blunt, ineffective fist of blanket censorship intrudes into everyone's play. Moreover, in simply censoring words that are in themselves innocent, Blizzard deny, erase, the identities of those who want to apply them to themselves. At its most extreme, this is the kind of thinking that leads to a lethally toxic environment for LGBT people, and no less unpleasant for leading in this case merely to a policy more concerned with suppressing problems than solving them. It's political correctness gone soft.
Let's be clear: I have no doubt that all their senior staff believe in good faith that this stuff should not happen. I am certain they have good intentions. But whether it's an institutional climate, corporate culture or just plain ignorance, the company only seem capable of apprehending homophobia and transphobia in retrospect. Their policies are based on the conviction that spurious ‘neutrality’ is an adequate response and that cutting off all discussion remotely related to sexual orientation (or race, or whatever) will, if not defeat prejudice, make sure they don’t have to worry about it. But they don’t get it, they never have, and they won’t until they recognise that, since they are always going to offend someone, they might as well offend the right people.
As it happened, there came a point in Deus Ex when I realised I had started to care about the people and politics of its world rather than see them as grist for my role-playing mill. J.C. Denton had matured, and when the final dilemma came I found myself abandoning my plans to choose the most infantile, moralistic option, and instead considering the issue with gravity. But that’s beside the point. Or is it?