On Wednesday morning, Mark Kern sat down with his 12-year-old son to tell him the guild was breaking up. Kern had been involved with World of Warcraft from the very beginning—a game developer himself, he was the original team leader for the title when Blizzard Entertainment launched it in 2004—and was a steadfast player of WoW Classic, a throwback version of the game that launched in August. Yet, things had changed. Over the weekend, an esports player for another Blizzard title, Hearthstone, had shouted a Hong Kong protest slogan on the game’s official Taiwanese livestream; in response, Activision Blizzard suspended the player from high-level competitive play for a year and said it would not pay out his past winnings, claiming that he had violated rules barring acts that “offend a portion or group of the public.”
For Kern, who was born in Taiwan and spent time in Hong Kong, the studio he’d called home for nearly eight years had changed. He told his son that he had decided to cancel his WoW subscription, putting an end to their family tradition. “I explained how … people [in Hong Kong] were very concerned about their freedom and China’s history of human rights abuses,” Kern tells WIRED on Discord. “I told him that Blizzard had punished a Hearthstone player for supporting Hong Kong and what that punishment entailed.” His son decided to do the same.
They weren’t the only ones. While Kern was perhaps the highest-profile game developer to publicly denounce Blizzard, the sentiment swept across the internet this week, from the Twitter hashtag #BoycottBlizzard to multiple Blizzard-related subreddits. Employees at Blizzard’s Southern California headquarters protested by taping paper over the phrases “Every Voice Matters” and “Think Globally” on a statue.
The Blizzard dustup was the most meme-suffused variation of a theme heard again and again this week: the sound of politics colliding with economics. The NBA, an organization that has long cultivated a Chinese fan base and whose current preseason features exhibition games against Chinese teams, scrambled between appeasement and adamance after the Houston Rockets’ general manager tweeted (then deleted) his solidarity with Hong Kong protestors. Apple, already under fire for hiding the Taiwanese flag from the iOS emoji keyboard in the Hong Kong region, removed an app that helped Hong Kong protestors track police whereabouts. Google did the same with an Android game that let users play as a Hong Kong demonstrator.
Each decision invited furor; each, at this point, remains unchanged. In a statement, Apple said “concerned customers” prompted the removal of the location app, HKmap.live. Apple said the app “has been used in ways that endanger law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong. The app displays police locations and we have verified with the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement. This app violates our guidelines and local laws, and we have removed it from the App Store.” Blizzard “does have a statement to share,” a spokesperson for that company said Wednesday. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Over the past decade, China has embraced US sports and high-tech products like iPhones and Teslas, and US businesses granted access to China’s domestic market have benefited from a huge and increasingly wealthy set of consumers. For US tech companies, the ties often run deeper: They rely on China’s factories and supply chain and, increasingly, its top-class research talent, says Chris Meserole, a foriegn policy fellow and technology expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “I don’t think the public is aware of just how fully intertwined our economies are,” he says.
Those ties are increasingly strained as political and economic tensions ratchet up amid the ongoing trade war, and in response to politically charged flashpoints like the Hong Kong protests. The way Blizzard, the NBA, and Apple have capitulated to the Chinese government reflects the economic reality of today’s relationship.