Hearthstone Emotes and Communication

Instead of quoting Fred and Scott, let’s continue to understand modern social developments through Blizzard games mechanics. (Not really a joke even: large online video game companies are trying to develop communities people will pay to be a part of, and can structure an entire online society to try to make people happy and reduce unpleasantness.)

One reaction to my post on the LFG system is that “Okay this is a trade off of sacrificing some community bonds but also getting less harassment. If you have ever been targeted by verbal abuse, you’ll understand that this is worth it.” Which might very well be, but necessitates understanding the nature of MMO harassment.

Remember, the game designer can control every aspect of the world, including communication. If there’s an offending word, well, this isn’t the United States where the First Amendment protects expression, or even at that no one can stop you from yelling any word you like in the street. The game designer can simply make certain words not appear, or be converted to some sort of &$%*!# text. A word of harassment can simply cease to exist.

Once they do that, the trolls just switch to other words. They may be no longer using a slur, but they’re using the closest thing they can get to one and you know it and they know it. It’s infuriating. It wasn’t like the specific string of letters had some occult power, anything that reveals that same hateful sentiment makes your heart pound and your stomach nauseous. (Twitch-chat has problems with people spamming pictures of black people whenever an opportunity to use a slur could come up. When that was banned, they just said the name of the gif of the black person they wanted to spam. And so “try hard” became a very frequently used slur by trolls.) This isn’t to downplay any of these replacement-slurs: a black Hearthstone player reaching the height of nationally streamed tournaments had to explain why the chat next to his picture kept saying “try hard” over and over and over again and it was embarrassing for everyone involved.

So. Players we do not trust can not really be trusted with any freeform communication. So for their online CCG “Hearthstone” Blizzard limited communication with strangers to an emote system: you have 6 stock phrases your character can say to your opponent.


Several games have tried this. Penny Arcade has chronicled the results well.


The situation is actually much worse than this. People can spam “Nice!” repeatedly (if the game limits how often you can spam an emote, they can just do it as often as allowed) and this weird repetition is understood as BM, or Bad Manners, and can be extremely aggravating in a tense game environment.

There is no form of communication that someone can not transmit their hate for us through, and that we can not read someone’s hate for us into. Sometimes we get it wrong, and differentiating a sarcastic “Nice!” from a genuine one with poor timing can be tricky.

It’s true with the limiting of communication that there’s quantitatively less harassment. But who ever felt better because they got less slurs or trolling or sarcasm on a given day? What concerns us is that someone hates us, disdains or despises us so much that they can freely express it, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them. That fact eats at us, this fundamental social antagonism, and corralling it into smaller boxes or substitute words does not help us sleep any better at night.

So, when modernity changes that way and amount of harassment someone receives, it does not change the fact of it that causes our social anxiety. And in limiting communication, we have given up the richness of better, strong connections to others that at least mitigate the harshness of the world.

You may think I am exaggerating, but lets zoom out a bit. Lets apply this whole emote-analysis to the internet itself.

I mean really, if you told an oppressed person some decades ago “Soon the main method of arguing about things won’t be in person. A stronger person won’t be able to hit you if they disagree. A louder person won’t be able to interrupt you. They won’t see your face or know you personally. All it will be is text exchanges on forums you can choose to go to or not.” wouldn’t that sound a lot better? Many of the main mechanisms of oppressive harassment are obviated by the anonymous, text-focused internet.

And yet without a doubt, harassment is way worse here. It’s not just how frequent it is (very), but being told you are “an imbecile, a fucking moron” hits hard and ruins your day, even without any in person threat.

(People talk about how internet harassment might lead to in person consequences, via the method of “doxxing”. There’s no doubt that’s real but rare. Doxxing seems like an excuse that lets people say online attacks disturb us, without having to admit “mean things from strangers on the internet” really does punch us in the gut. We’re all supposed to be good individualists who aren’t bothered by a stranger, but that’s just not how our meat brains work is it.)

In the Devil’s Bargain of systematizing our interactions to reduce the bad stuff and lose the good stuff, didn’t we even relieve our anxieties about negative interactions a little? It doesn’t seem so.




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