Hearthstone and Hong Kong is When Games and Politics Crossed the Rubicon

By Rich Stanton on at

It's easy to forget that the world doesn't run on social media, and nor does social media reflect the world. Ever since the news broke of a Hearthstone player, Chung 'Blitzchung' Ng Wai, using the platform of an eSports tournament to make a political statement about Hong Kong, the fallout has been intense. The player was punished by Blizzard, a decision that sparked internal protests at the developer and much disquiet within the wider gaming community, before a week later this decision was reversed: Blitzchung got to keep his prize money, and the suspension was reduced.

Blizzard president J. Allen Brack wrote the following:

“The specific views expressed by Blitzchung were NOT a factor in the decision we made. I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision.We have these rules to keep the focus on the game and on the tournament to the benefit of a global audience, and that was the only consideration in the actions we took. If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.”

This seems disingenuous, particularly Mr Brack's assertion in the final sentence. It is inconceivable that any player who said "Go China! Nation of our times!" would have been punished.

Blizzard did do the right thing in the end, however, and rather than focusing in on the minutiae perhaps we should zoom out a little. Online reaction to this story fell on one side. We stand with the player, says the western internet en masse, and Blizzard are a bunch of mammonesque cowards.

Only a fully paid-up member of the Chinese Communist Party would lack sympathy for Blitzchung: any westerner looking at the current situation in Hong Kong has to be disgusted. The protests have now been ongoing for months, the Chinese government reaction has been escalating, and just over a week ago reached a pitch where a protester was shot in the chest with a live round.

There are detailed explainers if you want more of the specifics but, essentially, as the Hong Kong protests have escalated, the response from the Chinese government has been swift and often violent.

American college students show support on a Hearthstone tournament stream

Like any other medium, games have always been political: even if those politics are expressed through omission. If you're chin-stroking you could observe Tennis for Two, sometimes considered to be the first video game ever made, was developed on a WW2 system designed to track the trajectories of incoming missiles. The early days of the mainstream industry saw classics like Balance of Power tut-tutting at the state of geopolitics. These days, it's no surprise to see video games appearing in support of a party's general election campaign.

But you can instantly feel that this is different. Something about the scale and the stakes of this marks a different kind of politics in games. Something that isn't as safe and self-contained as making the point that 'nukes are bad' in an RTS game. Something that has the potential to spill over and become a major real-world flashpoint. Blitzchung is not the first gamer to use his position to make a political statement but, when we come to write about this era in hindsight, he may well be seen as the catalyst for a new movement in how video games (and specifically eSports/streaming) are used for political ends.

The big difference is that, until this point, developers largely controlled the message of their work. When we talk about politics in games (and ignoring its use in bad faith for 'things I don't like'), it's nearly always in the context of the game's actual content. But the nature of games has changed. The most popular and viewed video games are bigger than the game itself.

Hearthstone is a fantasy card-battler starring warriors and warlocks and mages. It's not intended as any kind of statement on geopolitics. But it is now a platform for statements on geopolitics.

And Hearthstone's not even the biggest eSport out there. What companies such as Blizzard would like is to be politically neutral: 'we make our games for anyone and everyone, and we don't acknowledge or endorse any political positions.' It's a stance that might have flown in the 1990s but, in 2019, has been overtaken by reality. It's not that Blizzard's necessarily changed (though its own employees were among those criticising the company's actions). It's that it can no longer control the narrative around its own games yet - and this is key - is still in some way accountable for them.

Overwatch's Mei transformed into a Hong Kong protest symbol (image credits: Kaipo Rozwolf, Tripartist1)

To acknowledge this tension is not to cast Blizzard as any kind of victim: indeed, there's much to criticise in how the company has responded to this situation, both initially and since. Blitzchung is the main victim but let's not forget that, in an overly heavy-handed manner, the two casters who interviewed him were also punished by Blizzard. It reasonably follows that, in taking such action, Blizzard has lost the right to describe itself as politically neutral.

Which itself leads to another important point: if you want to operate in China, you can't be politically neutral.

Blizzard is far from the first western developer to adapt both its products and itself for the Chinese market. The Chinese government has various rules about what is and is not acceptable in a video game, such as a ban on corpses and blood (hence the hilarious re-casting of PUBG as Game For Peace), and so Western developers routinely change a game's content to comply with the rules.

What is different here is that the content of the game is no longer the issue: it's the platform that the game (and eSports in a wider sense) provides. The live nature of events makes all the difference. Competitive Hearthstone is not designed as an outlet for political views, but it just so happens that broadcasts attracting a large and young audience are an ideal opportunity to spread political slogans. So people like Blitzchung use it, Blizzard responds in the manner it did, and we have a week of fallout where other personalities express solidarity by stepping away from the game.

Is it realistic to expect a company to take a side in an ongoing political conflict? After all, Blizzard might be a big company, but it's no Google and no Facebook: both of which have had trouble balancing their own principles, such as they are, with access to the Chinese market. Google's search engine was throttled by the Chinese firewall over a period of years (and eventually moved to Hong Kong), but even then the company began developing a 'censored' search engine in order to continue to access the market (a project that was only canned after an internal battle).

Blizzard may not be as big as such companies, but it does have something they don't: an audience that is emotionally invested in the studio's games. I use Google for most things, but I don't 'love' Google's services in the way I love WoW or Hearthstone or Overwatch. It's striking in this context to see the pain and disappointment that fans have been expressing online: as if the tagline of Overwatch itself, 'the world needs heroes', should be applied to Blizzard. There's the sense here that Blizzard is expected to share the values of its fans.

Sharing the values of tens of millions of people is self-evidently impossible, but is it realistic to expect Blizzard to make a stand? If it did, we all know what the outcome would be: the company and its games would be banned from the Chinese market. This is why Blizzard's actions can be presented as the studio making an active choice to put profit above principle and, don't get me wrong, that's definitely a major factor. But it's worth acknowledging that Blizzard had no 'good' choice to make here either.

Is Blizzard not sharing certain western values, for example, because it is also trying to share the values of others? I wouldn't want to live under the Chinese system in a million years. At the same time one can observe that the Chinese government is a core part of Chinese social culture in a way that is nigh-on impossible for us to relate to in the west. Individual freedom is a core part of western values; in China, such ideas are viewed as self-serving and dangerous.

If you want to do business over there, in other words, you have to play by their particular rules. And before we get all self-satisfied about being clever Westerners who live freely and can say what we like, consider the western response to Blizzard's 'failure' in taking a stand. Boycott. We play up to the capitalist stereotype by framing this political argument in monetary terms: if Blizzard doesn't do what we want, we'll take away our money! It seems an ironic reaction.

The League of Legends team Hong Kong Attitude, whose name casters appeared unwilling to say.

Scrutiny and exposure does change things. Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney used the opportunity to emphasise that Epic will never impinge on an individual's right to freedom of political speech. Which is super-interesting, because if I was a protester I'd now be looking at Fortnite and wondering how to test that statement.  Even more interesting is that Chinese company Tencent owns a whopping 40 per cent stake in Epic, which has in the past provided plenty of conspiracy theory fodder for the Epic Game Store’s detractors.

With Blitzchung's statement and the subsequent week-long fallout, it feels like the landscape of games has shifted. Games may have always been political but, various moral panics aside, also somewhat self-contained. Even this moment with Blitzchung took place in a studio environment: what's going to happen when the live audience gets more involved? Popular games and events are incredible platforms. The developer of League of Legends, Riot Games, is 100 per cent owned by Tencent: and the upcoming LoL Worlds is surely another opportunity for protest.

What is the future for games and politics? Streaming and live events are a way to share a message to hundreds of thousands, and often millions, in an instant. As we've seen with Blitzchung, it's easy to punish and attempt to silence one individual. When it's a stadium audience chanting 'Free Hong Kong' and waving the banners, we'll see what happens.