Tencent, The NFL, and Why I’m Considering Leaving Path of Exile.

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(This is the second of a series of articles regarding Tencent’s decision to acquire 80% of Grinding Gear Games. You can read the first article here.)

Originally today I was going to write a fun article about lessons that I learned while playing Path of Exile’s last league, Bestiary, as not only a consolidation of my learning experiences but also as a guide to other players. Suffice it to say, that article isn’t getting written.

Earlier this week, it was announced that Tencent has Invested in Grinding Gear Games. I had posted my initial reactions to the news here on Monday, which goes into a breakdown of the major players, a history of Path of Exile and Tencent, as well as exploring my personal experiences in playing Path of Exile. I go into some of the intellectual vs emotional feelings I was having regarding the acquisition, and the current takeaway of the decisions that I had made about how to proceed with the news.

I’m here to write about how some of my takeaways have since changed, and I would like to talk about the main reasons why.

The NFL: A Detour

I need to make a detour in the conversation first, where I address something else that’s currently happening in entertainment in the United States, which is in some ways similar to this case.  It has to do with sociopolitical views and rules from the National Football League.

It was announced on Wednesday, May 23rd that the NFL had created a new policy that requires on-field players and personnel to stand for the United States national anthem. This is more than a year after Colin Kaepernick, a player in the NFL,  was noticed sitting down during “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the 49ers third preseason game of the 2016 season. He did so in order to protest the treatment of people of color by police brutality in the United States. Subsequently after this, Kaepernick would kneel during the anthem, with other players across the league following suit. This drew ire from mainly conservative folks, who interpreted the protest to be against the United States flag, not against police brutality. This went on for two seasons (2016-2017, 2017-2018) before the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, and all but one NFL team owner voted for the rule change to take effect.

The response from current NFL fans has been polarizing, with many struggling with the choice of whether or not to support an organization that is essentially “forcing acts of patriotism”, with those who wish to not stand for the national anthem to be whisked away where no one can see their protests. For many of these fans, their love of a national past-time has been ingrained since childhood, with so much of their daily discourse revolving around a well-known activity enjoyed by millions of Americans. It becomes a crisis of belief, with one having to choose between continuing to enjoy an activity that gives them great joy, or rejecting it to uphold personal morality.

I had a similar crisis point with the NFL, but it was four years ago for entirely different reasons.

The NFL in 2014

I had been raised a Denver Broncos fan since I was a kid, and Sundays were brilliant because it was the day in which we could watch them play. I would wear Broncos tshirts proudly to school, my friends and I would talk about the game, I learned how to throw and catch a football at school. My first grade teacher would hand out Bronco-colored jelly beans on Mondays after the game, with one color signifying a game win, another with a loss. Blue and orange were my favorite colors. In my twenties I saved up some money and got a Champ Bailey official jersey that I would wear on Fridays to work (because, as you all should know, 70% of the earth is covered by water, but the other 30% is covered by Champ Bailey.)

Then things happened in 2014.

Discussions arose around Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), or dementia pugilistica, and its prevalence among NFL retired players. Originally existing primarily among boxers, it is a progressive degenerative disease which affects the brains of people who have had repeated brain injuries and concussions. The brains of those affected deteriorate over time, where the brain has taken enough damage that it actually continually loses mass. Symptoms include memory loss, erratic behavior, impaired judgement, impulsivity, depression, agression, balance issues, and dementia. Although the first confirmed case of CTE in a living ex-NFL player wasn’t confirmed until 2017, it’s been discussed heavily since 2014, when it was found that 76 of 79 deceased NFL players’ brains had evidence of CTE, which was found when the brains has been studied by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The NFL had started acknowledging that players were susceptible to long-term concussion effects in December 2009, which reversed their official line in September 2007 where they had claimed that long-term concussion effects were “inconclusive”. In fact, the NFL know that this may have been a problem since 1994, but had not been forthcoming in either researching the problem or changing the game to be healthier for its players. This was extremely troubling for me to learn.

The second shoe to drop was how the NFL dealt with the domestic violence case against Ray Rice. On February 15th, Ray Rice and his then-fiancee, now-wife Janay Palmer were arrested on simple assault charges for an altercation that occurred in an elevator in Atlantic City. Video surfaced days later, where Rice is seen dragging Palmer’s limp body from an elevator. This is after Rice had knocked her unconscious. The NFL’s initial reaction was to suspend Rice for just two games; it wasn’t until more footage was released that he was suspended indefinitely.

The main problem in the Rice case is not so much with how the suspension was carried out, but instead of the treatment of Palmer when she had met with the NFL during a hearing. The commissioner and other NFL leadership basically questioned Palmer about the incident in the presence of her attacker, which is an incredibly callous action that has complete disregard towards Palmer and her safety.

Being a survivor of sexual harassment and abuse, this was simply too much to handle. This was my crisis point; I had to make a decision between supporting an organization that is problematic towards health and domestic violence issues, or giving up something that gives me a great amount of joy in my life. I chose to stop my support of the NFL.

Here’s the trick though; when you want to stop supporting something that you find morally reprehensible, you can’t half-step to be completely aligned with the decision that you made. I stopped watching and going to the games. I stopped talking about the game entirely. I stopped playing fantasy football. I discarded all my Broncos memorabilia and clothing. I made it a point, when asked, to have a concise reason as to why I’ve stopped participating. I wouldn’t guilt others into still being part of the NFL, but I made a convincing argument as to why it was something I no longer supported. I would no longer be a datapoint that the NFL could use and say “See, viewership hasn’t gone down! Merchandise hasn’t gone down!”

Everyone has that breaking point; some are discovering it now with NFL’s anthem policy. I found mine in 2014 with CTE and domestic violence. Others found it earlier than me, and others will find it after 2018. These things happen.

Path of Exile’s Breaking Point

This then leads me back to Path of Exile, and the decision for Tencent to own 80% of its shares.

I’ve had reservations about Tencent, from its sexist incidents to its participation in social-credit systems in China that uses incentives to push its citizens to be complicit with the government and the party line. The second example is extremely problematic, especially since the social credit is designed in such a way that it not only punishes you for personally stepping away from the party line, but punishes you if your friends don’t follow the party line as well, thus leveraging peer pressure in an unprecedented way for government compliance.

It’s hard to rank where social credit systems rank in terms of problematic (compared to topics like CTE and domestic violence), but I can say that when it becomes mandatory in China in 2020 for all 1.4 billion of its population, that’s a harrowing and chilling thing to see happen. I then have to question if I want to participate in helping it come to fruition.

My first thought was to just stop purchasing Path of Exile supporter packs and purchasing microtransactions, so I wouldn’t be directly giving money to Tencent anymore, but I found that simply wasn’t enough to stem the issue. By taking the position of ceasing monetary compensation but continuing to play the game, I was still giving valuable metrics, such as being “an active player”, “amount of time played”, “free publicity”, and other things that would inevitably help show that nothing changed with the Tencent deal. “See, this player didn’t leave! They’re still playing and telling their friends about it! This was the right decision!”

I had to ask myself a question that I asked myself in 2014:  I had to make a decision between supporting an organization that is problematic towards sexism and social justice issues, or giving up something that gives me a great amount of joy in my life.

Would I continue playing Path of Exile?

The answer is a resounding NO.

This is why I’ll stop playing Path of Exile, albeit emotionally kicking and screaming since I rank up there among the biggest fangirls you may meet for this game. It’s not an easy choice, but for right now it feels like the right choice for me.

If you’re reading this article and still play Path of Exile or purchase microtransactions, I’m not here to guilt your choice or to reprimand you. All that I do ask is to consider the choice that you’re making, and then make that choice consciously.

“Whataboutism”

Of course, I can anticipate some of the feedback that I’ll get from this article, the first of which is “well then, I guess you’ll need to stop consuming everything that Tencent is doing. And then everything China is doing.”

To that I say:

Let me know what Tencent is also involved in, and we’ll see what we can sever there.

Let me know what else China is involved in, and we’ll see what we can sever there too.

What I can sever, I’ll attempt to sever. I may not be completely successful, but I’ll at least try.

Because at the end of the day, I’m not going to completely succumb to “whataboutism”, where some internet troll will attempt to guilt me with “you’ve severed off ties with Tencent and China in these ways, BuT wHaT aBoUt ThIs ThInG yOu FoRgOt?!”

For that question/bait, it’s pretty simple in that I’ll do my best to lower the footprint that I have towards problematic things, and ultimately  I stand a good chance of contributing less than Ye Olde Internet Troll towards enabling troubling dystopian systems from being established.

Who knows, maybe I’ll reverse my decision on this some day. There might be  some point where I prioritize my personal entertainment happiness to be more important than my moral feelings towards helping problematic citizen control. I’m allowed such mistakes; I’m only human.