Gamers for Freedom Interview — Lead Campaigner Talks BlizzCon Protest and Politics in Games
Gamers for Freedom's Dayton Young spoke to DualShockers about how the organization took on censorship with the BlizzCon 2019 protest.
As we look back at 2019, one of the most shocking controversies (and DualShockers‘ 2019 Worst Moment of the Gaming Industry) involves Blizzard and their response to the ongoing Hong Kong protests. After Blizzard suspended Hearthstone player Blitzchung from competitive play for declaring his support for the protestors, much of the gaming community expressed their outrage online. This snafu became part of a larger national conversation where American businesses and bodies like the NBA were scrutinized for their ties to Chinese businesses. The saga also included another suspension for an American University Hearthstone team for similar reasons, a bipartisan letter from members of the United States Congress, and a highly-criticized official statement from Blizzard.
One of the louder groups amongst the uproar is Fight for the Future, which began the “Gamers for Freedom” movement. Gamers for Freedom was behind the protest during BlizzCon 2019, which featured an attempted apology from Blizzard president J. Allen Brack. Last month, DualShockers spoke to Dayton Young, the product director at Fight for the Future and Lead Campaigner for Gamers for Freedom, about how they approached one of the year’s hottest and most sensitive topics.
Chris Compendio: Let’s talk about Gamers for Freedom. Can you tell me a brief history of how Games for Freedom came to be? Specifically, how and when did they originate from Fight for the Future?
Dayton Young: Fight for the Future is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to fighting for digital rights. I’m a gamer, and we have many other gamers within the organization. We’re a small team, but many of us are tech-savvy—we love playing video games, we’re into technology. When I heard the news that Blitzchung had been banned, it was something I was very passionate about. It was something I was upset about. And it was something that I saw had resonated with the entire gaming community. So it was something that I brought up to the team at Fight For the Future and we discussed it as a group.
They agreed this was a big deal, that people being censored online for expressing their political beliefs was something that was outrageous, and it was something that we should be taking a stand against. Working with the team, we were able to get up the website Gamers for Freedom. I believe the day after Blitzchung’s ban was announced, we reached out to the press. It was obviously something that everybody else cared about, at the same time with [Houston Rockets general manager] Daryl Morey was being censored, and when South Park was running an episode about censorship by the Chinese government, and it attracted a lot of attention. It took off from there, people want to participate, gamers were outraged and it was just a great opportunity of being in the right place at the right time.
CC: What are the tactics and strategies employed by the movement in the protest, specifically against Blizzard?
DY: The main tactic is to use the internet as a way to spread information and raise awareness about what happened. Once we had people aware of what happened, they were signing on to our open letter calling for Blizzard and other game companies to support freedom of expression on their platforms. We wanted to show game companies and Blizzard specifically that gamers—professional gamers, casual gamers, people within the games community—everybody cared about this issue, and to put the public pressure on them to do the right thing to support our rights to express ourselves on their platforms.
CC: How far does the boycott against Blizzard actually go? I’ve seen people delete their accounts or try to like get people to stop playing Overwatch, for example. Does that include Activision, since Activision and Blizzard are one conglomerate? How far-reaching is this?
DY: Gamers for Freedom hasn’t made any sort of boycott on Blizzard or Activision-Blizzard games. On our website, we certainly do encourage people, if they’re fed up with Activision-Blizzard, we have a link to show people how to delete their accounts. We provide people with a suggested list of games that people can play instead of Activision-Blizzard games. It’s up to individual gamers to determine whether or not they want to participate in playing Activision-Blizzard games. I think that the most important thing is being aware of what Activision-Blizzard and other game companies are doing on their platforms, which game companies have publicly committed to supporting people’s free speech, and which game companies have made it clear that they will shut down speech that they find potentially offensive. And of course, they’re not being very transparent about what they may or may not find to be political or offensive, or not allowed on the platforms.
So what we’re encouraging people to do is to have an awareness that this issue is real. This issue affects us. Game companies have a lot of control over what people say, how people do, and what’s heard on their platforms. When they use it to silence people, they risk committing human rights atrocities. It’s actually part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that individuals have the right to hold opinions and express their beliefs on any media platform.
We certainly understand that companies like Blizzard have a responsibility to moderate content, that gamers can keep them safe. At the same time, when they censor people, when they declare themselves unilaterally judges of what is and isn’t political and what is and isn’t offensive, they risk committing actual human rights abuses. This isn’t some abstract concept. It isn’t something to be taken lightly. It’s a very real responsibility to the safety and the human rights of gamers who play on Blizzard’s platforms and we want them to take that responsibility as seriously as we do.
CC: So it’s more of a call for awareness and just being cognizant of what these companies, what these corporations are doing, not exactly like a call for “Hey, turn off the game systems” or something like that. It’s more like “hey, here’s how you can be a little more active. Here’s how you can be more educated.”
DY: Sure, awareness is definitely the first step into other actions. People are aware that this is an issue and how this issue affects them. There certainly are specific actions people can take. At the same time, I think when we have these institutional uses; sometimes we need institutional solutions to these problems. It isn’t always fair to say that individual gamers should be responsible for making sure that their basic human rights aren’t abused.
There are also other authorities and lawmakers and governing bodies that have a say in that and can help us more than any single individual gamer. We certainly do encourage individual gamers to take action, and events like the BlizzCon protest was a great opportunity for lots of different people to take a specific action, to make their voices heard, and to show how important their rights are to them. At the same time, we need the video game companies themselves to participate in these issues.
We saw lawmakers like Marco Rubio and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez co-authoring an open letter to Blizzard. As a community, we all need to come together and participate. There are things that we as individuals can and should be doing. But there are also things that these companies and our lawmakers need to be doing to help promote our safety and our human rights as well.
CC: What do you think will appease the public? J. Allen Brack tried to go on stage and give an apology, so to say? Would it take like a reversal of the Blitzchung fiasco, or would it be a 100% cut off of ties from Tencent and other companies, or removing the “no political statements policy?” Is there a “mission complete” goal?
DY: I think you’re 100% correct to say that J. Allen Brack’s non-apology only served to anger many gamers even more. Saying that he’s sorry and committing to do better without telling us what he’s actually sorry for and what “doing better going forward” actually means? That’s a meaningless promise; it’s just corporate doublespeak. Gamers for Freedom has not been in touch with anybody from Activision, though we certainly have reached out. Many media organizations have reached out to Blizzard and have not heard back on this. We would love for Blizzard to, first of all, sit down at a table and talk to gamers: professional gamers, casual gamers, gamers for freedom, human rights lawyers. They have punished American University Hearthstone students, they’ve punished Blitzchung, they punish streamers; they should be sitting down in a room with many representatives from the gaming community, talk about this issue specifically to hear what our grievances are, so they can understand how what they have done is very dangerous, and subverting human rights.
So I think the first step that Blizzard should be doing is listening and participating in a conversation with the people who have been affected by their actions. Together, we can determine many different courses of action that can help make people feel safer and more comfortable playing games on Blizzard platforms. But it has to be a conversation. They have to be willing to listen to us. They have to be willing to take actions based on what’s in the best interests of their customers and gamers in the community, as opposed to just what’s in their best financial interests.
CC: So it’s not a protest making a list of demands or anything; it sounds like you want to start a two-way conversation. Am I characterizing that correctly?
DY: I think that would be a great start with Blizzard. Obviously want the ban on Blitzchung and the American University Hearthstone students and the live-streamers completely reversed. We think that’s only fair. But we certainly think that and there’s a lot more work to be done from there. But all of the work needs to start with a good big conversation.
CC: Let’s talk about trust in certain actors and trying to sift through motivations and agendas of anyone who elects to be a party in this whole conversation. Let’s start with Jeff Kaplan, director of Overwatch. I think he was saying that he disagreed with that whole Blitzchung decision of suspending him.
Number one, do you think that was a genuine thing he was saying or was that a coordinated PR move to save face? And number two: employees have been protesting internally, but with a name like Jeff Kaplan, do you visibly see an effort from someone like him to move the needle within Blizzard or, again, is it just to save face for PR, in your opinion?
DY: Justin Conroy was a coach for the Overwatch League and the general manager for Team Canada, and he was told to delete a tweet he had on his personal Twitter account that was in solidarity of Blitzchung and condemning the censorship and severity of the consequences enacted by Blizzard, and Blizzard censored that tweet. So Blizzard has censored a lot of people. They’ve punished a lot of people. And now we have Jeff Kaplan coming out and voicing his opinion that Blizzard didn’t handle this very well. I fully support that. I agree with it. I have no reason to believe that Jeff Kaplan isn’t being sincere. And I certainly hope that Blizzard listens to him.
But it’s important for Blizzard to listen to other people as well people and other positions within their organization: people who are affiliated with their company, gamers, coaches, everybody in the community. Again, there are lots of people telling Blizzard a very specific message. We have United States senators and representatives reaching out to Blizzard and saying, “You are wrong on this.” Blizzard needs to listen.
I have no reason to believe that anybody who’s speaking out is anything other than passionate about the rights of individuals to express themselves on video games. And I hope more Blizzard employees feel empowered to do the same now that Jeff Kaplan has spoken out. And I hope they feel protected and safe and speaking out because we’ve certainly seen that Blizzard has a track record of censoring and punishing those people who disagree with that public.
CC: Let’s talk about those senators and congresspeople because that was a headline for sure. Marco Rubio and AOC, two very different kinds of politicians in Congress, being part of like this bipartisan letter, which sounds good on paper. I’m speaking from my own perspective at the moment, but it was hard to swallow that because when you talk about, China policy specifically in the United States government—I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a politician in Washington DC because there are so many interests, so many parties, so many lobbyists, so many things to keep track of, and they’re all playing to an audience and they all have a political agenda of some sort.
For a lot of the general public, it’s hard to trust politicians on really anything out of concern that they may be bought out or they may have some sort of motivation overseas, especially when it comes to China. This President has been very loud about China, let’s say. Is it fair to be skeptical of letters like that, to be skeptical of someone like Marco Rubio coming out in support? Or does everybody wins and say that this movement has more legitimacy because a United States senator has signed on on this. It is a straightforward win or is it nuanced and something that you think people should think about as they enter this whole conversation?
DY: I think it’s important for everyone to be skeptical of what corporations do, and what their motivations are. I think it’s very important for everybody to be skeptical about what politicians and lawmakers do and what their motivations are. I do think it’s important that when you see politicians who are so diametrically opposed on so many different issues such as AOC and Marco Rubio, and even they can find common ground on an issue–like free speech on video game platforms–that’s something that should really shake us out of our, you know, day-to-day skepticism.
And at the very least ask, “what’s going on here? Why is this so important that people fighting for very different visions of America, find common ground over this issue?” And in those areas where we see lawmakers crossing the aisle and agreeing on important values and issues, I think that speaks to the universal nature of how important it is to protect these basic human rights online.
CC: And that “unity,” let’s call it, is symbolic and indicative of a way where everyone goes, “Oh, wow, this actually is serious.” Is that kind of what you’re saying?
DY: I believe it is serious when it garnered the attention of the international media, when it gathers the attention of the lawmakers, and when it garners the attention of individual people all across America and around the world.
CC: The website for Gamers for Freedom describes a diverse coalition. Diverse in what way?
DY: We have a lot of different people from around the world who are participating in the movement. We have police officers from the south, we have activists, such professional activists such as myself, we had cosplayers from Canada flying in to attend the protests. We have people from Hong Kong and Mainland China, and people with ancestors over there wanting to sit and protest.
Some people are narrowly focused on Hong Kong, some people are focused on speech rights online. Some people are just gamers who were really upset that a gamer has been unfairly punished. So we have a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds participating in the protests for a lot of different purposes. But we all agree that it’s really important for all of us to be able to voice our opinions and things that are essential to our identity on games platforms.
CC: Would you say there’s any sort of line; because you’re right, a lot of different motivations, a lot of different reasoning for coming into the protest, but there may be some people who are joining in and co-opting the protest—let’s say, someone might be racist against Chinese people, or maybe they just hate Blizzard because of some Diablo mobile game that they announced last year.
Are those people welcome in that coalition? Is there like any line where it’s like, “you have bad faith reasons and you can’t participate with us.” Or have you not even run into that problem?
DY: Oh, we definitely run into similar issues, particularly in our Discord server. Free speech is very important to us, but we’re also very clear that game developers have a responsibility to moderate content on their platforms in order to keep people safe from harassment and institutional oppression. So we try to do the same within our movement.
Everybody is free to say what they want to say, and people are free to advocate for freedom online for a variety of different reasons and issues they care about. We expect that many people are going to have disagreements. But certainly, it’s really important that people don’t attack others, that people are debating ideas, that people are being respectful in their debates, that people are not calling for violence, that people are not using bigotry to harass or intimidate other people. We don’t stand for those sorts of things. So we moderate the content in our Discord server and find that overwhelmingly people are participating in good faith, and they understand what limits exist, and why those limits exist to keep everybody safe.
CC: How did that play in-person at the protest?
DY: Specifically at the BlizzCon protests, it was really amazing. We passed the microphone around. We had planned speakers, but some people want to speak from their hearts. Everybody was incredibly respectful. Everybody showed up to Blizzard out of love for games, out of love for fellow gamers, and an attempt to convince Blizzard to treat us with the love and respect and care that we feel like we deserve, and that should be protected by basic human rights laws.
So particularly in the physical protests, everybody understood that the people of China are people that we care about, the nation of China is our friend. We’re very upset at the Chinese government for the way they’ve exerted influence over companies like Blizzard, we’re very upset at Blizzard’s management decisions they’ve made to dissipate censorship, but we’re doing what we’re doing to keep people safe and to keep people free. So we had no issues at the protest that I heard of.
CC: There are a lot of gamers who are very against the idea of politics and video games, whether it be political content within the text video games, or how a video game company might be marketing something to invoke any political imagery or wording or whatever the case may be.
DY: I’m going to preempt this with the question of my own: what is political, and who gets to define what isn’t? I believe one of those statements Brack made was that he didn’t want people spitting in political conversations, that it didn’t matter whether Blitzching was pro Hong Kong or against Hong Kong, it was the fact that he was expressing a political viewpoint that could affect people. And the reality is that everything can and often is political.
If I wore an American flag on my t-shirt while I’m on a live stream playing video games, is that a political statement? Am I allowed to be proud of my country? Was that a political statement that should be prohibited? What if I’m wearing a flag of Taiwan on my t-shirt, or the Hong Kong flag, or gay pride flag? What issues are political? What issues aren’t political? Why are they political? Or why are they not political?”
There’s no transparency from companies like Blizzard on what is and isn’t political. So I think that it’s important for these companies to start having these conversations with gamers so they understand how many different gamers feel about these issues. It’s really important they understand they can’t be the ones unilaterally deciding what is and isn’t appropriate, because they’re going to get these things very wrong at times.
CC: Going back to those specific people in comments sections who used to get angry [about politics in games]: why would you say these people are suddenly active in the conversation, specifically over the Hong Kong Blitzchung saga? Again, are you questioning motivation with those specific people if you’re talking about bad-faith actors and Gamergaters?
DY: Our Discord server attracted a lot of people who’ve been wanting to come in and make negative statements about our movement. And we allowed them to do that because we think it’s perfectly reasonable for people to come and say, “Hey, I’m here because the Hearthstone subreddit is filled with nothing but stuff about this and you’ve ruined my subreddit.”
I would say that I try to take everyone in good faith. And if people are upset that two games are becoming what they see as political, I would simply challenge the fact that they think games are now becoming political. And it goes back to the heart of the matter, which is “what is political and who determines what’s political.”
Kojima games have been political since the first Metal Gear game. There’s been different politics in games since games began. So for people say that games are now becoming political, I’d strongly disagree with that characterization. I think games have always been political. I think there have always been political messages in games. And I think as games become more popular, and they attract more people from different cultures, it’s only inevitable that we’re going to have more political conversations about the content of the games and the people who are playing those games.
CC: Do you feel like this event is a wake-up call for those people who had that opinion that games shouldn’t be political and yet are participating in this conversation and saying, “oh, wow, this is messed up. We should do something.” Because that is a shift that surprised me.
DY: The Gamers for Freedom, movement and the banning of Blitzchung represent a very important moment in gaming history, where people are understanding that the idea of politics isn’t something abstract that games simply allow them to escape from and be free from. Politics are an integral part of the games we play, and the gamers who play them.
Our lives, our identities, our religion, our government—these are things that are essential to our identities. They will come out when we are expressing ourselves while creating games, playing games, and while talking about games. So this is an inherently political media. And this moment in time has been inescapable. People cannot escape from the political nature of games at this moment. So I think it has been a very big moment and a coming-of-age for all gamers to understand how important politics are to the nature of gaming.
CC: At the BlizzCon protest, were there any reactions from outsiders and observers who maybe didn’t know what was going on? Or people who didn’t really stand with everyone on the issue? Or was it all positivity?
DY: I think that from my perspective, what I saw from the protesters was literally all positive. I was at the protests, I had a microphone and amplifier, and the number one thing I tried to do was spread positivity, spread love, and spread support for gamers because we wanted everybody to know that we are there supporting their rights and their freedoms.
Certainly, I saw that some people attending got a little bit nervous when they saw the crowds of protesters, particularly those with children, because they didn’t understand necessarily what our values were, what we were about, and they were unsure about what protests are like. But we waved to kids. We said hi. We made sure everybody know that we were friendly. And a lot of people stopped to take pictures with us. They shook hands. We handed out over 4000 t-shirts that were donated by Freedom Hong Kong and Hong Kong Forum Los Angeles.
So people attending BlizzCon were very eager to participate. And not everybody is that happy, but thousands of people are interested in hearing what we had to say and wanted to know more and took t-shirts and flyers and took the time to talk with us.
CC: Are there any plans for protests in the future? Or is it just online and direct action online?
DY: Yeah, we’re certainly working on organizing more actions both in real life and online. This is not an issue that’s going to go away. This is something that Blizzard still needs to make right. This is something that other video game companies need to address. So they’ll be a lot more opportunities to participate both online and in real-life protest activities.
CC: Do you have any advice for any individuals or groups who might want to plan their own movements or protests to promote similar ideals?
DY: Certainly; I think that everybody should be raising their voice. Everybody should feel free to participate. Everybody should be respectful of the rights of others. That’s a very important part of the message we’re spreading, and the heart of this movement is to respect other people’s rights to express themselves, even if sometimes you disagree with those things.
So I think as long as people are acting in good faith, they should speak out and most importantly, they should continue to speak out. It can be very frustrating when you send a tweet or an email to the customer service of a company that you really like that makes games you care about, and you don’t hear back from them. And you think, “are they even listening to me?” And it’s very easy to get frustrated and not do anything else ever again.
But I think people have to realize that they have to continue to engage, they have to continue to speak up. It has to be something they do frequently. It’s something they have to do often. And sometimes they just can’t give up. These are really important values, and we need to continue to fight for them.
CC: This is more of a question regarding Fight for the Future rather than Games for Freedom, but do you feel like participation in this movement can help people specifically in the gaming community to be a little more cognizant of other international events and other human rights violations?
There are protests and like and conflicts going on all around the world. There are all these news stories going on in South America right now. Is that something that you think that this movement can help facilitate?
DY: 100 percent. So Gamers for Freedom; if you join our Discord, you’ll see that we have separate Discord channels for conversations about China in general, Hong Kong in specific things, things going on in Chile, things happening in Tibet, a Discord for LGBT-specific issues. So, certainly Gamers for Freedom is about issues that affect all of us.
What’s happened with Blitzchung affects everybody in Hong Kong. It also affects all of us. There will also be other issues that are affecting gamers all over the world in many different areas. There’s tons of civil unrest and protest going on in America right now. In your hometown, in my hometown. There are plenty of ways for gamers to get involved in politics, for gamers to see how these issues impacted their lives. And Gamers for Freedom is about those broader issues. And certainly when these individual incidents happen, that’s going to shine more light and draw a lot of attention. But these are symptoms of larger issues about digital rights and freedom online.
CC: My final question is more open-ended, so take this however you want to. Basically, how did we get here? How did American companies not realize that they were walking on eggshells in dealing with Chinese businesses? Why is this happening now?
DY: Oh, that’s a really tough question. I feel like I could write a Ph.D. dissertation on that. The easiest answer is that because executives at companies like Blizzard are prioritizing profits over human rights. It’s that simple and it won’t be simpler or easy to fix. But that’s what it boils down to.
These individuals at the head of corporations are placing business interests over the fundamental human rights of their customers, their employees, and the people in the communities in which they live and work. We need individuals to take responsibility for their actions. We need individuals to look out for the rights of others. We need businessmen to understand that conducting business has certain obligations for the general public. We are here in the position we’re at right now because people have not been respecting their obligations to the public.
You can find out more about Gamers for Freedom and their mission through their website.