Michael Alves (The Sage)
Ethics on Games and Game Development: Human Rights
Updated: Oct 21, 2019
As with any professional work, developing games too comes with its own ethical and moral questions, and we gamers, as well as game designers, developers and everyone involved in this community, should always be questioning and looking for ways to improve how we face games and game development.
Along the years, the relation of games with ethics have advanced many steps forward, as well as had some setbacks and problems along the way, I will not make a full historical revision here as right now a more pressing matter requires our attention than the history of gaming ethics: The importance and special status of Human Rights.[i]
The recent events with Blizzard Entertainment issuing a punishment on a pro-player of their Hearthstone League caused a big uproar[ii], with many players, news outlets and even political figures attacking Blizzard for their position that was seen as “siding with China” against freedom of speech.
Many people argued that the punishment was unfair and that Blizzard acted too fast and too strongly just to appease the Chinese government and prevent losses on their gains with China market, but some of those claims often forget that 88% of Blizzard comes from outside of Asia, with China plus all other countries on Asia accounting for only 12% of their earns. [iii]
They also ignored Blizzard's common instance of how they deal with the pro-players on their events, as they were often draconian on how they handed punishments.[iv] Blizzard goes as far as punish players for things done on player's own social media and streams in cases of Overwatch League.
This shows us that Blizzard was not acting differently against Blitzchung than they always did in the past.
If that is the best instance of action or not it can be debated, but this was always the Blizzard's way to make their professional leagues have a really high degree of quality and professionalism, as everyone involved knows that they should keep it clean and professional or consequences will be dire.
On a society that still somewhat mistreat games, and belittle the importance of game events, Blizzard is doing what they feel is right to show that their league is serious business and focused on good fun and entertainment. (Some will agree entirely, others will disagree partially or completely. I myself feel that entering the privacy of players and controlling their voices and actions outside of Blizzard platforms is going a bit too far, but I can understand why Blizzard do it like this.)
So now you are probably thinking “Is this article a defense of Blizzard instance?!”.
Blizzard has the right to keep their events free from discussions that are not pertinent to their games, and their instance on Blitzchung punishment was to say that they wanted to keep their professional leagues free from political discussion. They have the right to do that.
But the thing is, in the world of rights and ethics, things are rarely binary.
Blizzard can, and in fact should punish players for using a Blizzard platform to advertise politicians, or to promote a political ideology.
When we are watching Overwatch League we want to see the plays, and we want to hear pro players talk about the meta, their opinions on the game, their tactics, and their emotions on winning or losing, and not about if a given law should pass or not, or if the country should go a certain economic path or not.
Some, more politicized players might want to hear what that pro player instance is on political things? Sure. And that is why I believe players should have their freedom respected on their own social media and private life.
But for the majority of watchers of those tournaments, they are there for the game.
And this was exactly Blizzard's argument in their defense about Blitzchung punishment, and now on the punishment given to the players of the American University esports team, and they are correct on that logic, up to a point.
What they failed to see is that HUMAN RIGHTS are a subset of political discussion with privileged importance, meaning, and status.
One thing is promoting a political figure on a platform that you do not own, the other is denouncing offenses to human rights.
This is the line that makes everything that Blizzard did, in this case, incorrect, and that caused politicians of different countries to go as far as sending letters to CEO of Blizzard Entertainment to ask them to revert their position.
Blizzard had listened to the community protest and reduced Blitzchung ban to 6 months as well as removed the prize penalty. Yet they are still wrong, and by banning the players of the American University esports team they show to have not understood what they did wrong at all.
And here is the main topic of this article, what is our responsibility as players, gamers, designers, and developers in the cases of ethics? Much can be discussed about that, but I am here to at last make one thing clear, so we can, in the future, start having real discussions about ethics: We need to make a clear stance on the importance of human rights.
When Blizzard allowed manifestations pro LGBTQ+ community they did the right thing. Those were political statements.
That is why people are calling them hypocrites when they say that they want to keep politics out of their tournaments. Things like that are political, in the same way, that the Hong Kong protests are political statements. They both differ from defending a political ideology or a political candidate in the sense that both are grounded on a fight for human rights, and so they deserve special treatment.
We should keep game tournaments free from politics, but not free from LGBTQ+ protests, or Feminist protests, or protests against violence, oppression, and other violations of human rights, because that kind of political discussions have a special status that needs to be put above everything else.
It already requires great strength to position yourself against breaches of human rights, the fear of retaliation is most often present, and as a society, we need to assure people that if they come and denounce things, we will protect them. They need to know that if they ever find a way to speak to a big audience, that we will listen, investigate, take action and protect them for their courage to speak.
Some people dislike that LGBTQ+ stuff happens on the Overwatch League, but we should not care that they dislike it, or that it is a divisive topic to some. We need to give those oppressed people every opportunity they can grab to fight for a cause that is humanitarian, to fight for their own survival and their own freedom to even be what they are. And the same goes for this case about Hong Kong. Some people might disagree with calls for separation, but we cannot deny people the right to talk about it.
Let’s think about this from another perspective. Imagine yourself as a citizen somewhere were you feel that is happening governmental oppression and violation of human rights. You, because of your job, gain the opportunity to speak to a wide audience, but the rules say that you cannot talk about politics there. What is the ethical thing to do?
You can either refuse to talk about the oppression for fear of being attacked, and that is okay, everyone has the right to first try to preserve their own life. Or you can take a risk to yourself and denounce that violations.
In truth, many people would feel socially pressured by their peers to denounce. They could be seen as a coward for not doing so, and as a hero for doing it. With such a social pressure over the individual, how can we punish him when he goes and denounce something?
Some may say that in this case, the individual “Blitzchung” was not at risk, that he is safe, and that he suffers no pressure like that or a very diminished version of this pressure. But when we are talking about rules and regulations about how we will deal with human rights, we need to set a clear standard where people will feel safe. We cannot punish some, because they were not “oppressed enough” in our eyes, and then if a very bad case appears, then we don’t punish it.
Think if it was a player in a very poor country, denouncing war crimes, that personally affected his family and still threatened their lives. Would you dare to punish that individual with a ban? I am sure that not. But to that person feel safe to make his statement, we need to come clean that in every case we will side with human rights.
I do not know the real situation of the player Blitzchung, and I cannot say how hard or easy it was to him to make his statement, and how committed to it he is. And I cannot offer a clear and proof-based perspective of his situation in Hong Kong. But we should never punish someone for fighting for human rights.
It is a moral and ethical duty to report violations of human rights, and we should never take instances that reduce the will of the people in doing it.
We as gamers, game designers and game producers, should at least agree on these core principles as a ground where we can discuss how ethic, politics, and morals affect games and gaming.
When some people dismiss the discussions and importance of diversity, representativity, feminism, inclusion, and many other topics that are very important in discussion about games on the present day, we need to take note that the base of all this discussions are human rights, and that is why we should discuss this things when talking about games.
We may agree or disagree on certain aspects of each specific discussion, but should never belittle the questions itself or silence them. Sometimes we might face contesting values, as often freedom may clash with safety, reputation or honor, or other principles might clash with each other, and then we will need to discuss them, looking for better solutions and a more ethical approach to game producing.
It is important to note that we should not enforce the presence of politics and specific values in games. They can be present on some, and be lacking in others, as it is with any book or piece of art. Sometimes a game is about an emotion, other times it is about pure entertainment, and others it is a deep dive in the morals and ethics of society.
This article is not here to say that the games we make should include more about human rights or less about them. But to say that the process of designing, producing, commercializing and playing games should care about ethics and human rights.
A game can discuss ethics or not, and it cannot be judged as good or bad solely because of that. But all games made should be created and commercialized respecting the ethical values and human rights.
We need to make it clear that producing a game ethically does not mean creating a game that is a stand of social rights, but making the process of production and commercializing ethically. This starts with the ethical treatment of your employees, co-workers, and partners, as well as being respectful and true with your consumers.
A good example of an unethical stand of game producing is creating inclusive characters only looking for the marketing advantages, and without properly addressing the questions of the represented groups in meaningful and respectful manners.
Making a game with inclusive characters does not equal to “the ethical way to produce games”. You can have games with inclusive characters that are a mess of unethical choices and strategies of production and marketing, and games with no inclusivity that were carefully created, respecting the team, the partners, the consumers and the public in general. We should not restrict about what we can make games, as we should not restrict what we can write books about, but we should surely be held accountable for our ethics and values when developing and distributing games.
Blizzard often gave us very well-developed games, made with high ethical stands, by a team of very talented people, with great diversity, inclusivity and deep respect for its community.
What they need to learn is that human rights are a subset of the political questions that has a special status and because of that are values that should receive special treatment.
The recent news about the ban on the players of a Collage Hearthstone Team [v], plus the supposed forced deletion of a personal twitter post of a coach from the Dallas Fuel Overwatch team [vi], show us that they do not understand it in this light, and are still confusing Hong Kong protests with simple political propaganda, and not taking it as a human rights question. While Wizards of the Coast had a similar thing happen with the player Lee Shi Tian, at Magic Mythic Championship V, and has not censored him so far. [vii]
They need to review their instance, remove the punishment from Blitzchung, and their punishment off everyone involved in this matter, and recognize that they were not seeing the situation as a human right question, making it clear that they will, in the future, take into account the special importance of questions that involve human rights, when thinking about their instance over political statements made by players, and even staff members, in their official media channels.
They don’t need to change their heavy-handed way of dealing punishments, or their overall politics and guidelines. They just need to understand that there is a difference when we are talking about general politics and ideology, and when we are talking about human rights.
I hope that we can use this incident to learn of the importance of discussion of ethics and human rights on games and game producing, and we can show to some people that are against inclusivity and other political discussions in games how important those discussions are by pointing this example as one cause of human rights and politics in-game where people on opposite sides of the political spectrum agreed that the company action was ethically reprovable.
As we advance in this discussion, I hope, in the future, we can create a base of accepted core values and ethical rules that we can use to further discuss games and game design. I believe that human rights are a very important starting point for that, as it includes respecting for minorities as well as respect for freedom of opinion, speech, and diversity.
The Gamer Sage did not talk about this issue in form of article before out of respect for the people involved and the importance of their fight, as this article is much more about games and gaming ethics them about their social struggle, and i felt it would not be proper to do so at that time.
As things settled down a bit, and Blizzard continued to issue bans and act in ways I see as incorrect, I felt that it was time to publish this.
I hope to not offend anyone and to open free and legitimate discussions.
Hong Kong Free Press: https://www.hongkongfp.com/ Hong Kong Protests Wiki Article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Hong_Kong_protests USA Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_Kong_Human_Rights_and_Democracy_Act
[i] Declaration of Human Rights: https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
[ii] Blitzchung first punishment: https://news.blizzard.com/en-us/hearthstone/23179289/hearthstone-grandmasters-asia-pacific-ruling
[iii] Activision Blizzard financial report: https://investor.activision.com/news-releases/news-release-details/activision-blizzard-announces-second-quarter-2019-financial
[iv] Articles and sources of information on Blizzard punishments on pro-players of their tournaments: https://www.theverge.com/2018/3/9/17102224/overwatch-league-player-punishment-toxic-behavior, https://www.espn.com/esports/story/_/page/overwatchpunishments/seven-overwatch-league-players-hit-punishments-ahead-season-2, https://www.reddit.com/r/Competitiveoverwatch/comments/83py9k/current_list_of_owl_infractions_punishments/, and https://www.invenglobal.com/articles/4526/the-overwatch-league-is-fighting-a-losing-battle-against-xqc
[v] Article about ban of players of College Team: https://www.ign.com/articles/blizzard-bans-college-hearthstone-team-who-supported-hong-kong-for-six-months [vi] Article about forced removal of Twitter post made by the coach of Dallas Fuel Team: https://www.businessinsider.in/politics/news/a-coach-in-blizzards-overwatch-league-was-told-to-delete-a-tweet-condemning-the-company-for-censoring-an-esports-competitor-from-hong-kong/articleshow/71529559.cms
[vii] Article on Lee Shi Tian’s protest at WoTC Magic tournament: https://dotesports.com/mtg/news/wotc-wont-censor-lee-shi-tians-support-for-hong-kong-protests-at-mythic-championship-v