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WoW chat, communities and toxicity: the end of an era

BlizzCon just passed and everyone was mad about Diablo Immortal, justifiably so. You can read on that topic just about anywhere on the internet. However, there were other issues that reared their ugly heads during the main events, the Q&As, and probably even more that people hardly even noticed. So let’s talk about a seemingly minor thing people were also up in arms about: during the World of Warcraft Q&As, someone from the audience asked what could be done about the “pervasive” toxicity in WoW general chat, and got some pretty audible boos. Let’s unwrap this, shall we.

Initially, reactions were as one would expect. The audience member was booed and when the footage was uploaded on YouTube, buzzwords about “SJWs” and “safe spaces” were thrown around on in an air of general ridicule. Now, discussing any chat toxicity in WoW is a conversation that is ten years too late. Chat has been a cocktail of low-brow edgy insults, memes, Chuck Norris jokes (in the olden days) and Dirge (that dead horse is still being beaten) since the beginning of Vanilla. It reached such epic proportions that the T-shirt “I survived Barrens chat” is still a thing. Yet talking about toning it down a little is met with anger and on some sides of the fence, opinions were thrown that the community is being censored in order to accommodate an overly sensitive minority. As far as WoW conversations go, utterly pointless. But why is that? The reason is as simple as it is evident: there is no more Chat.

What made World of Warcraft great was not just the colorful visuals, the raiding, the PvP battlegrounds, or the story. The king of all MMORPGs is, and has always been, built upon its communities. The community lived on the server, populated by guilds, sub-communities into themselves. Like a small town, people knew each other. Guilds had their own dynamics, they saw marriages and divorces and internal power struggles that often rocked the entire server. And this sort of living, breathing society that, let’s face it, often lived more in WoW than in real life, is what also gave life to the Chat. Yes, Chat was mean. It was also pretty dumb most of the time. But it was people quipping about things they knew about, with other, familiar people. Random parties with strippers were thrown in Goldshire. Large guilds hosted RP events across factions. Raids were formed to bash Thrall (or Tyrande)’s face in. And with the bad, good also thrived. Now, this is a hollowed-out echo of its former days. The reason? The people are gone.

It is no secret that the WoW player base is dwindling. From 12 million active subscribers during Wrath of the Lich King, the population of a small country, current counts are… we don’t know. Blizzard stopped reporting active subscriber counts after Warlords of Draenor infamously led to 3 million players unsubscribing, and I don’t think Battle for Azeroth has hyped enough people to come back. You can’t have a community when all the community members have left. Joining the servers made sense on a more practical level, but communities were suddenly flooded by strangers and suffered from that change.

But, you will say, new players keep joining in! And some of the old ones are still there: so why do you say Chat is dead? While this may be true, the fundamental nature of how we interact in the game itself has changed. The most active, most social players who loved organizing things and spending sleepless nights in the general chat, are older now. They probably have to take care of their families and have actual jobs. And the new generation that is supposed to be the fresh blood in the community simply isn’t interested in the whole community thing. Without generalizing, the way players see a game has changed, and the rise of esports has contributed to this evolution a lot. The competitive scene means a game is now seen as having a goal to be won, often within a set amount of time. Gaming now requires less amounts of time and is a lot more, let’s call it convenient: you don’t have to spend most of your conscious life in a game to play it properly. And as such, gaming as a whole flourished, but Chat slowly ebbed away. It has now mostly fallen silent, with the occasional bursts of life when people are back from work.

But does this mean we shouldn’t talk about toxic chat behavior? We absolutely should, when and where it is relevant. But talking about toxic chat, and only chat, especially when it is pretty much gone, is pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes. The cold, hard truth is that the MMO genre is slowly slipping from our fingers into the uncertain waters of the future of gaming. Toxicity will probably carry over to whatever gaming turns into in the years to come. It is already a problem in esports, seeing as to how pro players are often edgy teens who like to run their mouth, sometimes for giggles and sometimes because they are generally untolerant people. But that is a problem of humanity, not the genre of gaming. Unfortunately, whatever measure any company uses to curb behavior others may perceive as toxic, can be easily circumvented by anyone with enough will to do so or even detrimental to the way people communicate in a game. The onus is on all of us who love gaming to rein in our emotions when others are being mean, but also to do our best to actually be civil with each other: an achievement humanity is yet to unlock. And it would be a server-first.