What Really Happened At That BlizzCon Panel, According To The Woman In The Video

What Really Happened At That BlizzCon Panel, According To The Woman In The Video

Xantia doesn’t spend much time on Twitter, so she learned that California was suing Activision Blizzard for years of alleged sexual harassment and discrimination a couple days late. She had no idea she became the face of discussions about Blizzard’s questionable past with women until a friend messaged her on Facebook. She says it felt like the meme of Leonardo DiCapiro pointing at the TV screen.

“It’s really weird seeing this whole thing getting press coverage for a question that I asked 11 years ago,” Xantia, who preferred to go by her World of Warcraft handle to protect her privacy, told Kotaku in a phone interview. “It was just surreal.”

The clip of an all-male panel of World of Warcraft developers condescendingly mocking and dismissing a question by Xantia at BlizzCon 2010 resurfaced around July 23, partially as a response to a staff email sent by Blizzard president J. Allen Brack. In it, Brack called the recent allegations against the company “troubling,” going so far as to express shock and dismay at the idea the company might have a history with sexism. But then people started circulating the footage of the panel, where instead of calling out his coworkers or pushing back against the boos from the audience against Xantia, he just joked and chuckled along with them.

While the video was new to some, for many it’s emblematic of a rotten culture at the heart of Blizzard that’s been there for years — if not proof of gaming’s ambient hostility to women.

“It’s hard to have your voice heard when there are that many guys setting the tone,” Xantia said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why that video has gone viral. It just exemplifies so much of what’s wrong right now with the industry at large. There is me being utterly dismissed by a panel of men who run the company and at the same time having a small, small group of women in the audience cheer and then that immediately being drowned out by men booing.”

Xantia has been playing games for as long as she can remember, and some of her favourite ones happened to have been made by Blizzard. She picked up the original Diablo in high school, fell in love with StarCraft, and eventually found her way into the giant online community of World of Warcraft. “I viewed [Blizzard] as something apart from a lot of the other major developers in that they seemed to genuinely care about their fan base,” she said.

Alexstrasza, first introduced in World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King (Image: Blizzard) Alexstrasza, first introduced in World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King (Image: Blizzard)

By 2010, she was in graduate school and decided to go to BlizzCon not only as a fan but as a potential networking opportunity to find a job in the video game industry. “It was a bit like being a kid in a candy shop,” Xantia said.

And that’s how she found herself in Hall D of the Anaheim Convention Centre asking a World of Warcraft panel why so many of their strong female characters nevertheless still looked like they had just walked out of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue.

“I spent like a good 20, 30 minutes working my way up the line [for fan questions] thinking, ‘What’s the best way of phrasing this?’ Like, ‘Hey, for some of the major female characters, can they at least be wearing pants?’”

The most recent World of Warcraft expansion at the time, Wrath of the Lich King, had introduced a new female character named Alexstrasza, a powerful dragon queen empowered to watch over all life. Her outfit, meanwhile, was red bikini armour. “I remember doing the quest chain and my reaction was just like, ‘Oh, come on, you’ve got to be kidding me,’” Xantia said.

And so with Alexstrasza in mind, she asked the panel of Brack, Greg Street, Tom Chilton, Alex Afrisiabi, and others, in front of the BlizzCon cameras and an audience of thousands, for more varied female character designs.

“Which catalogue would you like them to step out of,” responded game director Tom Chilton at the time. “I feel you, and we want to vary our female characters absolutely, so yeah we’ll pick different catalogues,” said Alex Afrasiabi. The rest of the panel laughed. Brack tried to keep the joke going. Xantia was eventually prompted to move out of the line, her question unanswered.

“I tell you, it’s funny, I didn’t really think much about it at the time just because it’s so daunting,” she told Kotaku. “You get up there, you’re nervous because you’re being filmed, you’re being streamed and you’re in front of an audience of easily a couple of thousand people. And on top of it you’re asking the panel in front of this enormous screen where you’re watching yourself ask that question. So it’s hard to even kind of keep your thoughts straight. And I manage to sum it up coherently, come out with that question and they make a joke. I kind of like how I laugh and then they just keep going with it. I’m like, OK, I guess I’m not going to get a chance for a follow-up. OK, I’m being dismissed, great.”

She said that afterwards, quite a few women and some men came up to her saying they appreciated her question. Despite Blizzard’s dismissal, other players found themselves lending their support. Still, the whole experience threw her off a bit.

“Honestly, the sound of being booed by that many guys, honestly, in some ways that bothered me more than getting dismissed,” she said. “You had that initial cheer from the women in the crowd and then just wave boos.”

But while the clip has become a signifier now for what’s wrong with Blizzard and the games industry at-large, it didn’t necessarily stick with Xantia in the months and years that followed.

“I didn’t think that much about it, because there’s always been for the longest time a certain amount of sexism in the games industry that is just there and you learn to roll your eyes and do your best to ignore it and just try to appreciate the things that you do like about it, Xantia said.

“I loved Diablo II back in the day. Did I love the character model for the Amazon? No, not really. Hell, one of my earliest memories of gaming was being excited about the first Tomb Raider game and thinking, ‘That’s so cool it has a female protagonist.’ And then you see the first model of Lara Croft in the game and you’re like, oh, cool, great, great…”

There’s an audible exhaustion in her voice when she recalls this memory. The 2010 BlizzCon panel wasn’t an anomaly. It wasn’t the mask slipping in front of thousands on video. It was what she had come to expect from a space dominated by men with little regard for anyone else, and as California’s lawsuit and new reporting has confirmed, who were at times explicitly dangerous to the women around them.

Afrasiabi is one of the only people named in California’s lawsuit, accused of sexually harassing and groping female Blizzard employees. It also accused him of having a “Cosby Suite” at BlizzCon where he would also prey on women.

Based on images obtained by Kotaku, the “Cosby Suite’’ was an actual booze-filled party room at BlizzCon 2013 in which Afrasiabi and others would pose with a giant portrait of the comedian. Activision Blizzard confirmed to Kotaku that Afrasiabi was terminated last year for “misconduct.” Brack, the only other person named in California’s lawsuit for failing to address sexual harassment compalints against Afrasiabi, is still currently in charge of Blizzard.

Despite the experience at the panel, Xantia said she tried to get a job at Blizzard in its Strategic Initiatives Department around 2012 and was in the running for a while before ultimately being rejected. “I was pretty heartbroken about it at the time, but man, talk about being lucky in your failures,” she said. “I now feel like I dodged a bullet there.”

Following the resurfacing of the BlizzCon 2010 moment, former World of Warcraft lead designer Greg Street, currently at Riot Games, took to Twitter to apologise in a somewhat meandering tweet thread. He first qualified the “shitty answer” by saying it can be hard to see who’s asking the questions. He also mentioned that developers are nervous up there, in front of the crowd, out of fear they will say the wrong thing. Eventually he settled on, “I find the video embarrassing and I apologise to the player who asked the question and all others who were disappointed with our ‘answer.’”

Xantia said part of what’s been so weird about seeing the video brought back up over a decade later is seeing responses like Street’s.

“I guess Greg Street now knows who I am now. Cool. OK. And also that wasn’t really an apology, but sure you do you. Whatever gets you to sleep at night,” she said. “I was joking with a friend when I saw it, when I saw everything he was writing about that, just, you know, ‘Oh, I couldn’t see her react, I couldn’t see her face’ and how he’s disappointed in all of these things. Yeah, but your ears were working just fine. Did you not hear hundreds of people booing me? What would it have taken to say, ‘Hey, guys, come on, that’s not cool’? “Whenever you start explaining yourself to that degree, it stops being an apology.”

Xantia thinks Blizzard needs to be more candid too.

“One of the biggest things that they could do is, actually be honest and have that kind of ‘boys club’ not be above reproach,” she said. “It has to be more than just a show of ‘We did these couple acts of penance and now we’re all better.’ I think there actually has to be a fundamental reevaluation.”

Xantia’s found the recent actions of other developers at Activision Blizzard, including an open letter and walkout, to be cause for optimism. And despite how bizarre it’s been to play such a visible role in the public outcry that’s currently unfolding after all these years, she’s hopeful the negative experience is now making a positive contribution.

“I’ve gotten a moderate amount of attention for all this when I’m only tangentially connected to it,” she said. “I think the important voices are for the women who were actually at Blizzard who have had to endure far, far more than just being dismissed at a convention.”

“There are worse reasons to go viral. And if this helps to actually bring about change then that would be something profoundly good that came out of a pretty small, but still shitty moment.”

Comments

  • It would have been a really shitty experience, and the armour designs in WoW have always a bit eyerolling in the ‘chainmail bikini’ side, which led to some horrific looks when put onto a forsaken female. (Mageweave is definitely one of them)

    But ascribing that kind of design to males is a fallacy. I’ve given female artists full creative control on designing looks for characters on whta they’d like, and they’ve come back with outfits that make Alex’s look tame in comparison.

    Reminds me of the misogynstic attacks on the Neptunia games, where those attacking the art clearly have no idea that the character designer and CG artist is female and doing the designs and illustrations that she wants.

    • Created entirely in a bubble? With no direct or implied expectation from established company culture? I don’t think so.

      Also, women are not a monolith. One person might like something and another not. Shocking, I know.

      • “Also, women are not a monolith. One person might like something and another not. Shocking, I know.”

        Interesting POV considering some of the views you’ve expressed in the past.

        Especially considering, when it’s the people who align with your… thoughts… who tend to not care about the people in “minority groups” that don’t align with those same thoughts. They just kind of ignore those people’s voices, or flat out attack them, when trying to label everything as some form of “-ist/-phobic”

        I remember watching a supercut of (American) journalists and news anchors (white and black), on national TV calling Black conservatives “Uncle Tom’s” and “House N….” and having zero ramifications. As an example of course. Hell, I remember hearing Biden telling Black people, that they “aren’t black” unless you vote for him. *shrug*

        Not having a dig, just an observation.

    • I think the problem is whether it’s in service to the character or not. Does the outfit fit the characterization, their role in the story, the setting and the overall tone of the work, or is it just there for the sake of it? I think a lot of female characters unfortunately tend to fit into the latter rather than the former. Having your vampire queen seductress or your savage barbarian be skimpily dressed is one thing, but when your chaste super serious paladin is running around in a chain mail bikini, while all her male colleagues are fully armoured no less, then it comes off more as a case of objectification, and frankly, bad writing.

      I always think of The Witcher 2 as a prime example of this. The Witcher setting is a very gendered one. Just like Game of Thrones, or real life medieval Europe, women don’t have much of a place in society (sorceresses aside). Yet The Witcher 2 features two female warriors: Ves and Saskia.

      Ves is a girl trying to make it in a man’s world. She wants to be one of the guys, and comes across as not wanting to be thought of as a woman. And yet she wears an open top that prominently displays her breasts. Saskia is the leader of a rebellion. A fierce warrior trying to inspire and lead a group of men. And yet her outfit is also low cut with a strong focus on her breasts. In both cases the outfit doesn’t feel like something the character would wear, and creates an immediate dissonance with the narrative that throws immersion out the window.

      On the other hand you have several sorceresses that are also dressed in such a way, but you don’t get that same dissonance because it feels in character. Their personalities are the seductress types that use sex as a weapon. So them being dressed like that doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb and throw the player out of the world.

      And you’re right that there’s plenty of woman who enjoy the skimpy thing and are perfectly happy to design characters as bikini warriors. But in regards to that, my anecdotal experience is that when a woman is the one behind the design, the skimpiness is in service to the character. The outfit will feel like something the character would choose to wear, even if it might be slightly out of place with the rest of the characters or setting.

      • It does vary across games, but if you had a variety of female characters and player models then the ones created for the male audience would not stick out so much. It does seem pretty obvious when the entire female character roster in some games is there as male eye-candy and wish fulfillment.

        And sometimes even when there are more interesting female characters, they also have to get a bit of extra sexualisation because they are female. It’s default.

        An interesting challenge would be to write a game where the sex of the characters is not defined. Then randomly assigned at run time. If you wanted to write a scantily clad sexy person, maybe they would be a girl or a guy. How would someone write an interesting character like that when the crutch of gender stereotypes is removed?

    • There are a lot of female artists doing fantastic work, like Mariel Cartwright. I wouldn’t let any wowsers or virtue-signallers prevent me from enjoying chainmail bikinis. If people don’t like it, there are plenty of other options for them. These nazis telling us we can’t enjoy certain styles of art are just sad.

      • Here we go. An alternate opinion on games appears and you call it “virtue-signalling”. That’s a rhetorical device to redirect focus from the actual point being made to some personal failing of the person saying it. Lazy partisan hackery.

        And Nazis! This is a video about a woman whose suggestion was mocked, laughed at and booed down by those who held the power to make change. She is speaking from a position of powerlessness. Yet you characterise this as a common example of a powerful oppressive force.

        She is allowed to have a different opinion to you about the art direction of a game. Her opinion is not some violence or oppression to you. The fact you exaggerate so much when talking about opposing opinions perhaps demonstrates that you are the one intolerant of free speech.

      • Hey look. Another Worrito rant that, if it wasn’t Worrito, would have been deleted within the hour.

        With all the threats of bans and such, it’s a wonder how you still have the ability to comment.

        Also… Nowhere did anyone say anything about watching “CARTOONS OF SEXUALISED CHILDREN”… That sounds like projection… Are you secretly Flora Gill??

        • I’m both amazed and not surprised that you *willingly* allow such a comment to still exist.

          I spose if you tow the line, you can say whatever you want, about whoever you want.

          Rules for thee and not for me

  • Certainly optional outfits that done expose too much skin would make sense. But its a silly game in the end, nothing makes sense.. lol

  • iirc Alexstrasza was original introduced in Warcraft 2, not WotLK, where her story was that she was kept captive by orcs who forcibly had her breed with her consort to churn out dragon children they’d use in combat. Not exactly a great backstory for the character, especially in light of recent allegations.

    • Yikes. I remember that. No wonder the team doing WC3:Refucked wanted to use the opportunity to retcon original lore.

  • Just in relation to player characters, I saw a suggestion for Monster Hunter: Rise that I liked that was there should be two styles of armor: solid and skimpy, and neither was fixed to one gender. A female character can dress and go about in full battle gear, and a male character could run around in chaps and a bikini.

  • At the end of the day, the Dev response to her question was moronic, and ultimately very telling given what we now know…. Ironic given the premise of her actual question was arguably not particularly valid. Yes Sylvanas and the female dragon aspects might have met that description, but to suggest there were no important female characters throughout WoW to that point in time who didnt wear more than underwear is just plain wrong.

  • Quite a few of the girls I’ve played with choose their character race based on sexiness. As they themselves want to be sexy, their avatar should then also be sexy. Makes perfect sense since your avatar is a psychological extension of yourself.

    As a male, I do something similar.

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