Note: This article was originally hosted on gamrfeed, which is now defunct, and was released around the time of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2‘s release. I think the information still stands, so I am reposting it here. It’s interesting to note that since writing this it seems that with games like Cyberpunk 2077, the best boycott one can do is demand refunds – hopefully that’s what happens moving forward. The entire 2011 article is below, largely unedited.
For the last hundred or so years people have been using boycotts to voice disdain for things that make them angry. In the case of the famous Montgomery Bus Boycotts of 1955, a boycott was both successful and ushered in a wave of change that ultimately helped stop racial segregation in America. The bus boycott worked for many reasons, first it got an entire city thinking about an issue that many took for granted, and second it brought an industry, thought to be unjust, to its knees. Black citizens walked, hailed cabs, and did basically everything to avoid taking the public transportation within the city. This showed that a bus was a luxury that people could “live without” if they needed to, and that message was heard.
Unfortunately, we gamers want to think of ourselves as the voice of the consumer, and stage boycotts for things that make us mad. Poor DLC implementation, games we don’t want, games we do want but aren’t getting: these are all potential causes for us to take action. The problem is that we are all mostly slackers, and either give in too quickly or resort to illegal means to get the things we want.
Gaming boycotts don’t work because the industry executives know that most of the loudest members of any gaming boycott don’t adhere to the very principles of a boycott. If one is to have any boycott work, one has to hold to their beliefs, and help generate sympathy to the cause. If enough people join in and refuse to buy something, stir up the media, and ultimately make the company look bad, one can actually cause a shift in business practices due to an economic backlash. Instead of this we have a bunch of guys that either say “screw this company!” while playing the game ten minutes later, or ones that try to “stick it to the man” by downloading the game illegally. This sends the wrong message on both fronts: for the people that cave in, talk idle threats and do the exact opposite, game companies feel that they can “get one over on us” simply because they are doing whatever bad thing for our own good.
To elaborate further on the above, I will be taking cues from an article from congress.org by Ambreen Ali called “Seven traits of a successful boycott” [editor’s note: This article does not appear to exist anymore, and is not archived] to show where we ALWAYS go wrong.
Trait 1: Clear Target
The main problem with a lot of videogame boycotts is that they are on such a huge scale that it’s hard to actually pinpoint who is targeted. Small scale boycotts always work the best, such as a town boycotting a large shopping center in favor of small town businesses. Instead of keeping our sights realistic, many gamers don’t start at a realistic scale then get angry when it all falls apart. Take, for example, the recent Sony Boycott from the hacktivist group Anonymous. Rather than starting small, many called for the utter collapse of Sony itself which is a stupid target, and was the ultimate reason for the failure of the protests.
Trait 2: Publicity
Going with the Sony boycott, we can see how publicity plays its part in the role of a boycott pretty easily. Before large scale hacking of Sony’s servers really picked up a few of the netizens on 4chan and other sites associated with Anonymous decided to do a sit in on Sony stores to voice displeasure with the companies bad business practices. Sadly this was a bust with many stores being protested by a small amount of Anonymous members, if any at all. Word got around that the protest was a failure, and the “leadership” of the group decided to go another way and start hacking the servers.
Whether or not Anonymous had anything to do with the PSN servers getting taken down, we can all see the effects of the bad publicity they obtained. Not only did Anonymous go in under the flag of “we’re doing this for you” and “we’re protecting you”, but they clung to that until a feverish backlash brewed up and caused them to back off almost immediately.
Trait 3: Populist Support
With a backlash brewing there was no popular support from anyone; people who vocally supported Anonymous suddenly became the subjects of pure internet hatred. Nobody stood up for them; they were demonized, labeled terrorists, and ultimately exposed as the unorganized mass of humanity that they were. It will be a hard fought battle to see if Anonymous ever gets back to the cool Robin Hood-esque status that they had prior to the PSN attacks, but I doubt it will be anytime soon. And for the record, the protest backfired and Sony is doing better than ever.
Trait 4: Visible Allies
Most gaming boycotts never gain support of anyone that matters. Aside from gaming press sites, you never really see a high up game developer or media personality step up for the “little guy”.
Trait 5: Leadership
The above picture of the Call of Duty Boycott shows this exact problem in full blown color. The story behind the madness was that a whole lot of people were angry at Activision for taking away the “tried and true” option of having dedicated multiplayer servers in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The boycott was an astounding failure and it really helped show that most gaming boycotts can’t be taken seriously. If you take a look at many of the original forums for said protests, many are littered with bitter tears, gamers yelling at their fellow gamers:
“So I noticed after the release of MW2 the large majority of those boycotting conformed to IW and simply bought the game and enjoyed the wonderful IW Net along with IW’s elaborate in depth patch notes that tell you what they did to your game files. Sadly all of you spineless f^%$# who didn’t follow through with the boycott allowed IW to stomp all over the gaming community. Considering Call of Duty was a landmark in PC gaming, allowing IW stomp over us pretty much proves that anyone can remove dedicated servers and still be successful.”An angry boycotter
It’s easy to yell at folks when you’re not the one in charge. This attitude is bad for more than one reason, but most notably it shows a total lack of leadership involved in the total process. You basically had a large number of angry gamers that voiced displeasure, followed by a horde of slacker bandwagon jumpers. Rather than having someone take charge, it was left up to many small groups to somehow work together to get the point across that dedicated servers needed to come back. Problem was that the goal of the boycott got mutated to all sorts of things including a cheaper game, making the game a DLC for COD4, not releasing the game etc. with no clear leadership, and a host of random goals, it was doomed to failure.
Trait 6: Purchasing power
Continuing the above example: What should have happened is that gamers should have ignored the game completely, they should have stated their intentions, and then purchased the rival product, in this case most likely Battlefield: Bad Company 2. The lost revenue would have made Activision reconsider their stance on their games, and everyone would have been happy.
A perfect example of how this works happened in the mid 1980’s when soda juggernaut Coca-Cola decided to randomly change the formula in its hugely popular flagship beverage. The new product, called ”New Coke” was made with high fructose corn syrup and was touted as being smoother than its predecessor and ultimately “more like Pepsi”. This re-branding lasted an abysmal 77 days before sales crashed to insane levels, and word of mouth started hurting the company. Coca-cola Classic was born … er…. re-issued, and all was right in the world.
So have there ever been any successful videogame related boycotts? Why yes there have, and guess what the guys behind it did things right. A while back Blizzard decided that it would start forcing its forum patrons to use their real names on the forums in order to help curb bad behavior amongst their worst members. What they didn’t bargain for was that the angry “minority” would start cancelling World of Warcraft accounts and dropping preorders for the newest expansion Cataclysm.
Trait 7: Messaging
Have you ever heard of a gaming boycott that actually lasts for the entire time that it is supposed to? We always hear that people are supposed to not buy a game ever, and then suddenly cave and pick it up. Maybe folks forget about it, or the hive-mind bandwagon antics seeped into the farthest reaches of distant memory, either way it isn’t good for their causes.
For gaming boycotts to be taken seriously we definitely need to adhere far more closely to the “Seven traits of a successful boycott”. We need to have a clear target, gain publicity, win allies, install leaders, win even bigger influential allies, use buying power, and keep up with our goals, far after the fact. If all these are not met, we can be sure that just like The COD Boycott and the Sony boycott, our little grass-roots gaming protest will fail.