If Tracer’s Pose Was Censorship, Then The Baldur’s Gate Controversy Is, Too

A little over over one week ago, I was writing about how Blizzard had opted to change a pose for the character Tracer in the game Overwatch. The pose saw Tracer glancing over her shoulder, looking towards the player, her backside in plain view (as backsides tend to be when looking at someone from behind). This pose was initially the subject of a single, now-deleted post on the game’s forums, which said of the pose: “It’s not fun, its not silly, it has nothing to do with being a fast elite killer,” adding: “It just reduces Tracer to another bland female sex symbol.” The game’s director, Jeff Kaplan, responded to this complaint, saying that they would “replace the pose,” concluding: “Apologies and we’ll try to do better.” From this, a shit-storm ensued.

Kaplan’s a top employee in a monolithic game developer, but even he found himself taken aback by what transpired following this forum post, releasing a statement claiming Blizzard had not “caved in,” but rather that they were making this decision as a developer. Nonetheless, there were cries of censorship, claims that Kaplan and the team at Blizzard had been forced into this position by Social Justice Warriors, and had not stuck by their original vision in favor of cowering before the court of progressive opinion. Over on GamerGate’s subreddit, KotakuInAction, users discussed how they were seeking refunds of the game as a result of the change. It was an alarming precedent, they said; an example of a developer bowing down to the “Regressive Left.”

Fast-forward to earlier this week, and Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear has raised the ire of the same people who vehemently argued against the removal of the Tracer pose. The game, an expansion to the 1998 cRPG classic Baldur’s Gate, includes a line of dialogue spoken by an NPC called Mizhena. This dialogue is only accessible if the player chooses to engage Mizhena in conversation, and can still be avoided even then, given that there are branching dialogue paths. However, if the player chooses to ask Mizhena where she got her “unusual” name from, Mizhena replies by telling the player that when she was born, her parents “thought me a boy and raised me as such,” but that “in time, we all came to understand I was truly a woman.” The name is a combination of syllables from different languages, Mizhena adds, concluding: “All have special meaning to me, it is the truest reflection of who I am.” 

This line, combined with a reference to GamerGate in which popular character Minsc quips “really, it’s all about ethics in heroic adventuring,” saw the game being placed in the eye of a storm of outrage. Floods of negative user reviews swamped the game’s Steam, GOG and Metacritic pages, with many citing the game’s writers forcing its politics into it as the reasoning behind their anger. Many contained thinly-veiled transphobia, with the insistence being that Mizhena’s mere inclusion is apparently a political statement, while others opted for the blanket criticism of “bad writing,” even though these claims seemed to hinge the quality of the writing upon the trans character and the GamerGate reference. Amber Scott, the game’s lead writer, was personally targeted, her comments on the game’s forums that she actively looked to include diversity in her games apparently being evidence that she “shoehorned” them into her work.

Eventually, after a tremendous influx of negative user reviews and the swelling amount of accusations of transphobia that were leveled at those doing so, the narrative changed to suggest that “no one” had a problem with the inclusion of a trans character, but the criticisms instead pertained to how the character was implemented. Despite the outrage quite clearly being disproportionate to the perceived offense, and regardless of the many reviews containing both thinly-veiled and incredibly obvious transphobia – not to mention a video being passed around titled ‘Tranny Abuse’ in which the player kills Mizhena after first laying down a “Detect Traps” spell, which itself was mostly populated with hugely transphobic comments – this largely became the default criticism that was acknowledged by its detractors. They weren’t offended by the trans character’s inclusion, they said, but rather that she “immediately” reveals she is trans, despite her actually revealing it when the player requests the origins for her name, a mod being created to completely remove her from the game, and there being a number of user reviews containing transphobic comments and slurs, as can be viewed below:

Now the game’s developer Beamdog has issued a statement, saying that the dialogue for Mizhena will be altered as a result of this tremendous backlash, and the reference to GamerGate will be removed completely. Considering that this comes after the alteration of the Tracer pose as a result of “censorship”, and is during a period of time in which GamerGate largely revolves around standing up against what they perceive to be censorship, the irony of them effectively assuming the roles of those they oppose is almost palpable.

So what exactly is the difference between the alteration of Tracer’s pose, and the alteration/removal of content from Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear? Unfortunately for GamerGate, the only real difference is that Blizzard changed the pose following a few complaints confined to one forum post, while Beamdog is changing the trans character and removing the GamerGate reference after facing a heap of external pressure, which has not only seen the game being smeared online with negative user reviews, but also threatened with boycotts and its employees hounded online. GamerGate is now stating that they didn’t want Beamdog to take these steps as they admonish censorship, but the truth is that according to the group’s loose description of the term, this is censorship – and a more heinous example than the ones they’ve so angrily stood up against.

Consider an alternative universe where the removal of Tracer’s pose had been handled in the same manner. Say that the pose had led to the game being flooded with an influx of negative user reviews, all of which cited the inclusion of that one, lone pose as the main reason behind their decision to scrub their hands of that game. Say that “SJWs” would have specifically uncovered who greenlit that pose, vilifying them online for their actions. Say that they had combined together like one giant, SJW Megazord and claimed that they were going to boycott not only the game, but the developer’s future projects, too. Say that Blizzard had thought “fuck this, I’m not putting up with this shit anymore” and caved into this pressure, changing the pose as a result of this incredibly overblown outrage. This would, by GamerGate’s definition, absolutely be censorship. Yet apparently, it’s not.

Tracer’s first pose (left) and Blizzard’s later alteration (right).

After publishing an article earlier today regarding Beamdog stating they would change the game as a result of these complaints, I received some tweets claiming that, no, this wasn’t censorship, because GamerGate didn’t actively demand that the GamerGate reference be removed and that the trans character be altered. Sure, GamerGate continued to advocate the boycotting of Beamdog and requested refunds as a result, the game’s user reviews were flooded with complaints directly referencing these supposed issues putting off any subsequent buyers, its forums on both its official site and its Steam site were flooded with complaints, its employees were singled out and repeatedly complained at online, and some GamerGate members requested that these things be removed from the game (but, because it’s a leaderless movement, everyone can claim that these aren’t actually GamerGate members and carry on with their lives), but because the group as a whole didn’t go knocking on Beamdog founder Trent Oster’s door and request that he make these changes, this isn’t censorship, he’s just made these decisions of his own free will and him facing such intense levels of pressure before making these alterations is a happy little coincidence.

But if a group of people are going to cry censorship when a single forum post leads to the alteration of in-game content, or criticisms of previous games in a franchise leads to a publisher apparently choosing to not release their third game in a particular territory, or a 13-year-old character wearing a bikini is excluded from a game, then there is no other logical solution for them to accept that a developer eventually caving into such an extortionate amount of pressure is censorship, too. Doing anything else is essentially them openly admitting that they believe censorship is exclusively reserved for alterations in games that they disapprove of, which effectively undermines essentially everything GamerGate ostensibly stands for. 

But it looks likely that there will be no much-needed introspection on GamerGate’s behalf, given how the group is already very adamant that it is not at fault, jumping through hoops to prove that somehow this is different from all those other times it claimed games had been censored. However, it does vastly undermine the entire argument wheeled out by the corner of the Internet that conflates criticism with censorship, and will serve as a bullet point against those who like to claim that any form of negativity encircling a game is evidence that those conducting it are actively looking for it to be censored.

If the changes made to Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear don’t constitute as censorship in GamerGate’s mind, then retrospectively neither should the alteration of Tracer’s pose. Nor the Koei Tecmo’s decision to not release DOAX3 in the West. Nor the changing of outfits in Xenoblade, and the alteration of Support conversations in Fire Emblem: Fates. The group simply can’t pick and choose what is/isn’t censorship based upon their own ideals, and if they do choose to freely admit that they are doing so, they are eradicating arguments that they themselves have made.