Adam Holisky’s editorial at WoW.com regarding what he sees as an out of control negativity about Warcraft reminds me of this post from Broken Toys last February. Both Adam and Scott share the attitude that when someone says something you don’t want to hear, the proper response is to tell them to shut up. Adam’s confident post is the living illustration of the definition of positive: mistaken at the top of one’s voice.
The Benefit of a Vocal Minority
Adam starts his piece with a claim that a loud and obnoxious minority is harming the game. In particular, that it’s drowning out the sober voices of reason. Adam specifically states that even he agrees with some of the underlying complaints. It’s that he thinks the way those concerns are expressed is counterproductive.
Attacking means and not ends is almost always error. Lets consider some realities that we take as ordinary that once started out as the complaints by a vocal minority.
- The American Revolution
- The Abolition of Slavery in
- Women’s Right to Vote
- Civil Rights
The list could go on and on. Almost every major change in American society occurred because someone complained loud, long, and frequently in an obnoxious tone of voice. In writing that I am not comparing the substance of the forum posters complaints to those noble causes. I'm saying that the best question is not whether the people on the forums are being jackasses. The best question is: are they right?
If the complaints are correct then they deserve a vigorous airing. In fact, I’d go one step further. I’d say that only where there is a free trade in ideas, only when there is an opportunity for all voices to be heard, can we possibly know if the answer is correct. Every human being is fallible. No single human being has all the correct answers all the time. It takes input from the entire group. The trolls of today are often the heroes of tomorrow.
Silence is the Wrong Answer
If Blizzard were to take Ghostcrawler off the forums or even shut them down entirely the real loser would be Blizzard itself. First, Blizzard would be a loser because it would lose an essential tool of positive feedback. Ghostcrawler himself has mentioned on several occasions the valuable feedback the developers have gained from the forums. Even if there are only 10,000 regular users of the forum, that doesn’t mean that having that resource isn’t important to irregular users like me. You don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. If the vocal minority is wrong, shutting down the forums only makes Blizzard look weak and hurts the silent majority. If the vocal minority is right, then silencing those voices only makes Blizzard look arrogant and unable to admit its mistakes.
The second problem is that people won’t be silenced whatever Blizzard does anyway. If people have legitimate complaints (and Adam concedes they do) then telling them to shut up only results in them taking those complaints to other forums. 10,000 angry people with a genuine beef can do real damage to Blizzard’s brand name. It’s just not a smart strategy to have them wandering around the internet crying to potential customers. Better to have the vocal minority vent at the developers who know nonsense when they see it than have the vocal minority vent at the gullible public who get easily scared of anything new. As the old saying goes, keep your friends close and your enemies even closer.
So I would implore Blizzard not to press the self-destruct button on the forums. The results are not likely to be what they want.
Where Adam is Correct
I think that Adam’s attacks on Warcraft’s vocal minority are inapposite. Yet I also think there is one aspect on which he is correct. A few months ago I stated that I thought the biggest problem with the forums as a means of public relations was that Blizzard had allowed it to become too much about a single personality at the expense of the brand. Because of Ghostcrawler’s significant presence on the forums the trolls often flock to his threads because they treat his comments as a form of PvP. So I am pleased to see that Adam also recognizes this as a real problem which Blizzard has failed to address.
In fact, I think that this is the real heart of the problem on the forums. Often people with something useful or important to say get drowned out by those who have come online to play “let’s outwit the developer” making the helpful people shout even louder in an attempt to be heard above the din. Adam’s post reminded me of the school teacher shouting at a rambunctious group of eight year olds to behave themselves. Of course that strategy is going to fail because as far as eight year olds are concerned being rambunctious is behaving themselves. If the teacher wants to get control he has to direct their energy into positive and constructive channels. The vocal minority, as far as I can see, don’t have any real interest in “running the game” anymore than students want to be the teacher. What they do want is to be engaged in constructive manner which has proven beyond the capabilities of one man, even a man as capable as Ghostcrawler.
Blizzard is the Vocal Minority
Sometimes in life in order to take two steps forward you need to take a step back. Adam's follow up post claims that players' freedom of speech ends where Blizzard's property rights begin. That's true as far as it goes but it doesn't go very far. Game developers don’t live in a vacuum; they are part of larger social and economic groups in which they participate and in which they are the vocal minority. All the recent trials of Blizzard in China are concrete proof. The recent issue with alcohol during Brewfest in the European Union indicates that this reality is not just for communist countries. There are no scared cows.There is no constitutional right to property in America. In fact, all the Fifth Amendment guarantees is that you will receive "just compensation" should the government decide to take your property. Anger enough of your customers and they won’t simply cancel their game subscription; they will complain to their electoral representative. Engaging your customers, all of them, even the trolls and the crybabies, creates an enormous reservoir of good will that may save the game development community someday.
In 1850 only a fool would have predicted a civil war that would lead to freeing the slaves. A vocal minority made it happen. In 1910 only a fool would have predicted that women’s suffrage would be universal in