If you were handed a megaphone, would you use it? When Freedom of Speech impacts the Bottom Line.

I am a casual gamer, yes you read that right, I’m in my mid-thirties and I’m a casual gamer, #proud. I play one video game consistently, sure, there have been flirtations with other consoles and their offerings; I see you Nintendo Switch, but I always come back to my one true love, World of Warcraft. Queue the eye rolls and groans of displeasure. Sure, my /playtime is now a lot less than it was a few years ago, before ‘adulting’ became a reality of my daily life, but I keep up with each expansion and maintain a stable of characters on each side of the in-game conflict (at cap no less). 

Oh, I can feel the judgment from both players and none players alike! Though for purely different reasons, of course, one thinks ick video games, grow up! The other thinks ick, she plays both factions, well pfftt to both of you, a girl has to have her bad habits and as far as they go, chocolate and Warcraft aren’t really all that bad. 

Why am I mentioning this game you might ask? Well, dear reader, I mention this game because I have a brain that works in zig zags and circles, goes down one rabbit hole and comes out over the horizon from the dragon’s cave, and then sprints off in a spiral into the nether. In short, I see one thing and I’ll think of something else.

So while trying to think of a post for this blog assignment, last week, my phone pinged with a headline; “Rebuking China, Trump Curtails Ties to Hong Kong and Severs them with the W.H.O” (Crowley, Wong, Swanson, 2020). Now this headline is remarkable for a number of reasons:

  1. In that it shouldn’t be remarkable anymore; Mr. Trump does like to tear up the script, and this latest international stunt shouldn’t be seen as anything less than attempting to distract from his overwhelming lack of interest for anything other than himself and his own business interests (I am still wrapping my head around his behavior of the last week domestically). 
  2. Choosing to sever ties completely with the W.H.O during a global pandemic is an act designed so sow disharmony and discord and should have an entire book dedicated to it. 
  3. China is now going to swallow Hong Kong whole, 27 years earlier than agreed. Again, books should and likely will be written about this decision and the devastating impact, it will have on the 7.5 million inhabitants of Hong Kong.

But while my brain tried to sort through what I was reading, I remembered a moment last October when a young man managed to propel himself into global headlines, by simply making a statement on Social Media

There was no racial slur, no intolerant language, it was not a moment of hate speech, but a moment of expressed opinion. Basically, a young man had been handed a megaphone and he had, inevitably, used it.

Well, what does this have to do with Hong Kong? Non-gamers are undoubtedly confused right now, while gamers are more than likely thinking, “oh no, this again?” But, I have to say, I think the Blitzchung controversy of October 2019, is actually well worth an examination in the context of a course on Social Media. So, if you are not ‘in the know’, and even if you are, let us jump back in time 8 months to October 6th, 2019, and what happens when a large gaming corporation hands a megaphone to a young man living in a city under siege and doesn’t think it through.

So, some background information, World of Warcraft is owned and developed by Blizzard Entertainment (which I will refer to as Blizzard moving forward, I’m not going to delve into the Corporate structure of Blizzard Entertainment or Activision Blizzard here), which operates a number of games. One of these games is a turn-based fantasy card game called Hearthstone. I am going to admit here, I don’t play Hearthstone, I know very little about it, other than, I received a blue fiery pegasus mount in World of Warcraft when Hearthstone launched, it was very exciting.

Blitzchung was a grandmaster of the esports circuit for Hearthstone and was participating in a  regional tournament for a fairly hefty sum of money ( approx. $10,000 USD). After each match, the winner is interviewed live online to discuss the match and how they are feeling about the tournament. Everything was going smoothly, Blitzchung had won his match and was due to participate in the expected post-match breakdown when he showed up to the interview wearing goggles and a facemask.

Blitzchung removing his face mask to make his statement as the interviewers duck their heads behind their monitors.
Figure one. Blitzchung and the interviewers for the post- match discussion. From “Hearthstone player banned for supporting Hong Kong protesters during live stream” By Jon Porter. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2019/10/8/20904308/hearthstone-player-blitzchung-hong-kong-protesters-ban-blizzard 

If you have been following the news coming out of Hong Kong over the last few years, the protesters there have developed several different ways to protect their identity while protesting oversight from Beijing, facemasks being one of them. These protests have gathered strength in the last year and by October were at an all-time high, for reasons I’ll touch upon in a moment.

Blitzchung whose real name is actually Ng Wai Chung removed his gas mask long enough to shout “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!” (Porter, 2020) while his interviewers laughed and ducked below their computer screens and moments later the broadcast shut down.

Now, I didn’t actually hear about this incident until a few days later when it was all over the gaming community and then actually hit the mainstream media world headlines. At first, I didn’t really see what the big deal was, a player had signed a contract to compete in a tournament and had then, apparently, breached the terms of the tournament code of conduct. He was banned from the game for a year and his winnings were revoked (Blizzard Entertainment, 2019). Did it sound to me like the reaction from the company was over the top? Yes, did I take the time to really see the situation for what it was? No.

I’ll admit, I didn’t watch the clip of the ‘incident’, I didn’t really even bother to read that much about it, sad to say, such was my indifference at the time. As I said above, casual player here, and I wasn’t surprised that the company acted the way it did, given their economic interests in China. Hong Kong is a touchy subject for them, and they wield a rather large economic hammer. I’m not saying here that I agreed with Blizzard, I was indifferent, unsurprised, and focused on other things.

But the gaming community lost its collective mind. #blitzchung was trending on Twitter, gamers were uninstalling their Blizzard games, and sharing their outrage across every Social Media platform, I couldn’t help but see it. Such was the intensity of the reaction, that six days after the October 6th incident, on October 12th, Blizzard changed their decision. Returning all winnings that had been clawed back from Ng Wai Chung and reducing his ban and the ban of the interviewers to six months instead of one year (Blizzard Entertainment 2019). This is a remarkable response from a global organization that stood to lose access to the single largest consumer market on the planet. That may sound like hyperbole, but while this scenario was unfurling for Blizzard, another was running its course for the NBA, so tensions were high.

This fast reaction really highlights the power of Social Media to shine a light on organizations and keep them true to their supposed core values. The pursuit of market share and economic growth is part and parcel of a Capitalist system of economics (wow, yes, I simplified the *bleep* out of that, I know!) So the fact that the gaming community, through Social Media, managed to bring an about-face in six days, is to me, rather impressive. And that is what caught my attention.

Through the course of writing this post and revisiting the media from that moment, I have to say, I get it. A year ban and the removal of his winnings? And the firing of the two interviewers? Definitely an overreaction on the part of Blizzard. A reduction to a six-month ban and giving the winnings back? Still an overreaction. I’m glad that Ng Wai Chung received his winnings, he played the game and won, fair and square, but to still receive a six-month ban?

It leads me to ask this question, what was Blizzard expecting? Let’s get some context for the environment that Ng Wai Chung is living in. And if you aren’t familiar with the timeline of Hong Kong and the reasons why there have been protests going on there for years, I’ll give you a moment to read this, and this and why the protests have increased.

Having spent his life in a city on the edge of the largest nation on the planet, growing up in a system that at its core is antithetical to the core values of the Chinese Government, is it any surprise that  Ng Wai Chung took that moment to send a message of support to his fellow Hong Kongers?  I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often, though the reason is likely absolute fear of retaliation. A realistic fear, given the track record of the Chinese government when dealing with those who disagree with them. This article is one of many that highlight individuals who have vanished in recent years, or experienced extreme reactions from the authorities, for expressing views that differ from or criticize the government. And, recently, a critic of the Chinese government’s handling of the Corona Virus, vanished.

Given the relative openness and democratic nature of Hong Kong, any pivot towards mainland China threatens the very core of Hong Kong’s values. Any individual arrested in protests, or even speaking out against China via Social Media, would be at risk of being sent to the mainland and never heard from again. To link this back to the context of this post, Ng Wai Chung, by making the statement that he made during the live stream, was placing himself at risk of being arrested and deported to mainland China for crimes against the state. For speaking one sentence.

The final moments of Blitzchung’s post-match interview, October 6th, 2019. (DuBanevich, 2019)

He knew he was taking a risk, you can see it in the nervous laughter from him and the interviewers. But he still took a stand, because he had faith in the institutions of Hong Kong to protect him and in doing what he did, he believed he was taking a stand to protect those institutions and show his support to his fellow protesters.

 I’m fairly sure, that given the American projection of its values across the world, and the fact that in its own mission statement Blizzard champions the individual’s freedom of expression (Blizzard Entertainment 2020), Ng Wai Chung likely didn’t expect a year-long ban and the loss of his winnings. A slap on the wrists in the form of a statement from the company maybe, but at their core Blizzard is an American company, right? Those ideals that America has spent decades championing around the world mean something, right? 

It speaks poorly to the leadership at Blizzard, that while they absolutely reserve the right to determine what constitutes a breach of their code of conduct, as they highlight in the code of conduct that Ng Wai Chung agreed to adhere to:

Engaging in any act that, in Blizzard’s sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damage’s Blizzard image will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD, in addition to other remedies which may be provided for under the Handbook and Blizzard’s Website Terms. (Blizzard Entertainment, 2019, 6.1.o. Pg 12)

That they chose this particular instance to enforce it. While their mission statement, which is made up of eight core values, embraces the notion of “every voice matters” (Blizzard Entertainment, 2020), and calls on its employees and gamers to be “…respectful of other opinions and embrace criticism as just another avenue for great ideas.” (Blizzard Entertainment, 2020) Their actions in this regard feel suggestive of a decision made while focusing on the bottom line and not the actual context of what had happened and how it might align with the organization as a whole.

On October 6th, 2019, Ng Wai Chung was exercising his legal right to express his opinion about the situation in his home city. A right that as of May 28th, 2020 has taken a fatal body blow after the Chinese government bypassed “…Hong Kong’s legislature and therefore public debate and consultation.” (Kuo, 2020, para. 13) And approved a new piece of legislation “…banning subversion, separatism, and acts of foreign interference on Hong Kong…” (Kuo, 2020, para.6)

I don’t blame Ng Wai Chung one bit for using the megaphone Blizzard handed him, I would have done exactly the same thing were I in his situation, at least, I hope I would have been brave enough to speak up. And I echo the frustration and disappointment aimed at Blizzard’s leadership. In a perfect world, social responsibility should come before profit. 

The ideal is something that we should expect everyone to strive towards, a constant progression towards bettering ourselves, hopefully, in this situation, Blizzard will take note of their own core values and “learn and grow” (Blizzard Entertainment, 2020) from this experience.

I recognize that there are many other examples where social media has been used to place pressure on an organization. This just happens to be the most recent one that landed on my radar. Is there an example that has stuck with you? A misstep by a commercial organization that was then retracted due to public reaction.

Do you think, if you were to switch places with Ng Wai Chung that you would have been able to speak out in the way he did? Is it even possible for us, sitting safely here in Canada, to really comprehend the nature of his experience and the pressures facing Hong Kong residents, as China accelerates is reunification plans? Some might say we have no right to comment, but, isn’t that the whole point? That I live in a country that has enshrined my basic human rights and my right to freedom of speech, so that I can safely have an opinion and so that others may safely agree or, disagree with me? I think Social Media is a gift when it comes to freedom of speech, so long as we continue to push ourselves towards the ideal, towards the fair, truthful, and open passage of information and the free exchange of opinions and ideas.

In parting, I’ll leave this video here in which Ng Wai Chung talks about his life after the Blitzchung incident and his love for his home city. I feel that there is something we can all learn from his attitude and his actions.

Interview with Blitzchung in Hong Kong in January 2020. (Peoplemakegames, 2020)

If you were handed a megaphone, would you use it? Freedom of Speech – Stuck between Capitalist Interests and Authoritarianism – https://bit.ly/3eKJhLL

For Facebook: As China continues to crack down on Hong Kong and the International Community steps back with no will to intervene, I look back at a moment when an American company handed a young Hong Konger a megaphone and didn’t expect him to use it. Are basic human rights and individual freedoms global? Or only applicable when they don’t impact the bottom line? https://bit.ly/3dykfzn

References:

BBC News (2019, June 24th). Hong Kong profile – Timeline. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news

BBC News, (2019, October 7th). Daryl Morey backtracks after Hong Kong tweet causes Chinese backlash. BBC news. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news

Blizzard Entertainment (2019) 2019 Hearthstone Grandmasters Official Competition Rules v1.4, Retrieved from https://bnetcmsus-a.akamaihd.net/cms/page_media /w4/W4NWIBHB74T31564507077190.pdf

Blizzard Entertainment,(2019, October 8th). Hearthstone Grandmasters Asia-Pacific Ruling. Retrieved from https://playhearthstone.com/en-us/news/23179289/hearthstone- grandmasters-asia-pacific-ruling

Blizzard Entertainment, (2019, October 12th).Regarding Last Weekend’s Hearthstone Grandmasters Tournament. Retrieved from https://news.blizzard.com/en-us/blizzard/23185888/regarding-last-weekend-s-hearthstone-grandmasters-tournament

Blizzard Entertainment, (2020). Mission Statement. Retrieved from https://www.blizzard.com/en-us/company/about/mission.html

Crowley, M., Wong, E., Swanson, A. (2020, May 29th). Rebuking China, Trump Curtails Ties to Hong Kong and Severs Them With W.H.O. The New York Times Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/

Davidson, H. (2020, April 8th). Critic who Called Xi a ‘Clown’ over Covid 19 Crisis Investigated for ‘Serious Violations’. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/international

DuBanevich [Username] (2019, October 8th). Blitzchung Statement – Grandmaster Season 2. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYCUVBKjddE

Kuo, L. (2020, May 28th). Chinese Parliament Approves Controversial Hong Kong Security Law. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/international

Ma, A. (2018, August 19th). Barging into Your Home, Threatening Your Family, or Making You Disappear: Here’s What China Does to People who Speak Out Against Them. Business Insider. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/

O’Grady and Berger (2020, May 29th). What is Happening in Hong Kong? Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/

Porter, J. (2019, October 8th). Hearthstone Player Banned for Supporting Hong Kong Protestors during Live Stream. The Verge Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/

PeopleMakeGames [Username]. (2020, January 23rd). Meeting Blitzchung, the Hearthstone Pro Banned for his Politics. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continu e=574&v=GZa8jatvq78&feature=emb_title

Tatlow, D. (2013, August 21st). Seeking Suffrage, Hong Kong Activists Plan ‘Occupy’ Movement. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/

3 thoughts on “If you were handed a megaphone, would you use it? When Freedom of Speech impacts the Bottom Line.

  1. I’m super glad someone else mentioned e-sports in their blog. Long read, but the Blitzchung segment made it all worth it. That scandal was crazy, and will probably carry weight for years to come.

    • Thank you for the comment! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Yes, I think it will have an impact, at least I hope it does. I think it is a shame that Blizzard reacted the way they did, but the reaction of the gaming community, for the most part, was positive and the support for Blitzchung was impressive. And hopefully, shone a light, at least for those who may not be following it, on what is going on in Hong Kong.

  2. Pingback: Finding the positives in Social Media – a global connection and a gift beyond words – Algonquin College Social Media Certificate Program

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.