In the last month or so, World of Warcraft has been working on a number of small changes to older parts of the game, removing or editing content that, well, hasn't aged all that well.
Some of this, Blizzard explicitly addressed, such as its removals of references to real-life employees who have departed the company in the wake of a lawsuit alleging harassment, discrimination, and a toxic work environment. Other changes are more subtle, though, like the toning down of some in-game paintings and the removal of a number of "joke" lines that players could deliver using a chat command. Much of the removed content could be considered unnecessarily sexual compared to the tone of the rest of the game, or was explicitly or implicitly degrading toward women.
These changes have been steadily rolled out on World of Warcraft's Public Test Realm, but are preparing to go live in an upcoming game patch. As websites have datamined, discovered, and reported on these changes, the community's reaction has been mixed, a reaction that was acknowledged in a recent VentureBeat interview with game director Ion Hazzikostas.
While many welcomed the removal of inappropriate content, he noted, others were confused or even frustrated. Why was Activision-Blizzard removing years-old joke lines instead of spending its energy on more pressing matters, like fixing its company culture or dealing with the lawsuit?
In the interview, Hazzikostas argued that the World of Warcraft team is doing its part of the whole to improve the company's work culture with the tools in front of them:
"On the other end there are those who have expressed concern that we’re almost doing this as a smokescreen,": he said. "Rather than actually tackling the hard issues, we’re just changing some words in a game. This isn’t an 'or.' It’s an 'and.' We understand that we’re not fixing systemic injustice by changing an emote in World of Warcraft. But why not do that while we’re also working on larger cultural unity and diversity and safety issues and more?
"As we’re improving our processes for evaluating managers, for sharing feedback with the team; as we’re improving our recruiting and hiring to build a more diverse team, let’s also turn that same eye on our game. That’s one thing that may be more visible in the short term. But in the long term we understand that what we’re going to be judged for as a team, as a company, and as a game is far beyond that. That work is still underway."
What does that work entail, then, exactly? Hazzikostas says that the system for changing game content was born in the wake of the lawsuit from a need for individual teams to assess where they, specifically, could be better.
"One thing that came up is that there are pieces of our game that, over the course of 17-plus years now, that were not necessarily the products of a diverse or inclusive range of voices, that did not necessarily reflect the perspective of the current team and of many of our players. There are things that people on our team were not proud to have in our game. These are many things that people, over the years, have pointed out in the community, but we didn’t necessarily listen in the way we should have at the time."
So they set up an internal process for the World of Warcraft team to flag pieces of the game for review, such as old quests or specific dialogue lines. For instance, jokes and references "made a dozen years ago" mocking male blood elves for being feminine. "That doesn’t sit right in 2021," Hazzikostas said.
The content submitted is then reviewed by a group that "reflects the diversity of our team today" on the WoW team to determine whether it should be kept or changed.
"We made decisions on whether to leave some things standing, because they’re borderline, but we’re not looking to reinvent everything, turn over every single stone and rewrite 17 years of WoW," Hazzikostas continued. "It might be a little bit juvenile. It might be off-color. But this isn’t something that is really making our game feel less welcoming for people, which is what we’re aiming to change. Those things we left. Others were removed, others were rewritten or changed accordingly."
Aside from content changes, Hazzikostas reassured that the WoW team is also working to tackle in-game toxicity by improving machine learning to catch bad behavior in-game. Previously, WoW has relied heavily on manual reporting, a system that works well enough in big cities when someone is spamming a general chat, but not as well in small parties or for harassment over messages sent to individuals.
Finally, Hazzikostas stressed how and why the World of Warcraft team is trying to improve diversity in its new hires.
"We can’t just open up a position, take the first couple dozen resumes, look through them, and pick someone out of that pile, because we may just get a couple dozen white male resumes," he said. "…This is not about any preferential decisions in the hiring process itself. It’s about working harder to understand how our job descriptions, the way we’re sourcing candidates, the way referrals work, and all the rest are filtering out qualified candidates of other backgrounds before they even make it to us. And then once we’re interviewing people, we’re going to pick the best person for the job at the time, but doing that extra work up front, we have found and continue and find, leads to a more diverse team that is more reflective of the country that we’re in and the player base that plays our game globally."
Hazzikostas's discussion occurred prior to today's Activision-Blizzard quarterly earnings call, during which former Blizzard co-lead Jen Oneal stepped down from her position after only three months, leaving Mike Ybarra as sole leader of Blizzard. Both Ybarra and Oneal were appointed to their positions following the departure of former president J Allen Brack in the wake of the lawsuit.
Activision-Blizzard has pushed a number of company-wide changes since the lawsuit, such as an end to forced arbitration and a massive CEO pay cut, but an attempt at a settlement unearthed a potential conflict of interest on Activision-Blizzard's part.
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.