A well-constructed Mage deck in Blizzard’s free-to-play collectible card game Hearthstone has the satisfying ability to take the enemy’s figurative arm over your knee to snap the bone in two.
The Polymorph card allows you to turn any minion on the board into a sheep that can only hit for one damage, with one unit of health. It can take out some of the biggest threats from your opponent. The Fireball card costs four mana and deals six points of damage to whatever it hits. But the Mage's holy terror of doom is Flame Strike.
It’s not a complicated card. You don’t have to set it up in order to bring destruction on your enemy. You don’t have to build your deck around it. It costs seven mana to cast, and deals four damage to every enemy minion on the board. It all but destroys your opponent’s ability to control the board, and there’s next to nothing they can do to stop it. It's the Hearthstone equivalent of opening the Ark of the Covenant.
It’s the sort of card that makes your opponent howl in frustration. I’ve laid it down and had the other player concede the match. It’s an amazingly effective middle finger aimed at the other player. I always imagine a string of curses coming from my opponent.
But what do I hear in the game? "Well played." I've never been abused online, even when destroying my opponent's carefully constructed army of minions.
This is due to the fact that Hearthstone doesn’t allow you to chat with the players in the game. There are a series of pre-selected emotes that vary slightly depending on your character, but there is no way to send your own text message unless you’re Battle.net friends with your opponent. There is effectively no chat, and no direct communication.
Blizzard has created a highly competitive and, in some ways, vindictive collectible card game that is a pleasure to play against random people, and it did so by removing our collective voice.
Words like violence
"This was a decision that was made early in development, before the launch of the beta," Jason Chayes, production director of Hearthstone, told me.
"It’s a topic that has been heavily debated on our team, and we definitely recognize that there are tradeoffs associated with this decision, such as adding steps for players looking to establish a friendship after an awesome game," he continued. "Overall though, we feel this was a very important part of our strategy to keep Hearthstone feeling fun, safe and appealing to everyone."
This echoes the strategy of games like Journey that also completely remove the ability of a player to troll, harass or otherwise ruin the day of anyone else. You can greet the other player, you can tell them they did well, you can admit you messed up and you can give them an in-character threat about how you’re about to destroy them. That’s it.
There is no string of profanity after I play one of those great cards in my deck. No slurs against any race, gender or sexual orientation. There is no button to teabag the other player. They can lightly poke fun at you by saying "Sorry" before laying waste to your defenses, but that's as far as it goes.
Every match against another human has real stakes due to players going through their daily quests for gold, so almost everyone you play is trying as hard as possible to win. The combination of random opponents and the in-game currency hangs in the balance could lead to a game where the loudest voices turn into the worst voices, but the emote system keeps them in check.
You can even "squelch" your opponent if you don’t want to hear from them at all. This turns off your opponent's emotes completely. I have a buddy who plays every match this way, treating other players as very able AI.
There is a psychic cost to going online and being buffeted by hate speech
What’s striking about the decision to limit communication isn’t just that it increases the speed of the game — there are no pauses to type and no long conversations, nasty or otherwise — your ability to play for long sessions is improved.
There is a psychic cost to going online and being buffeted by hate speech, but the basic emotes create a kind of very simple and welcoming conversation between players. You say hello, tell them you hope to win, you compliment them on their play, and say good game whether you win or lose. That's all you say, and it's more or less all you can say.
I walk away from long Hearthstone sessions just as happy as I walked into them, and the lack of constant abuse makes the games much more approachable. My son wants me to set up an account, and I don't have to worry about what he may hear, or say, online.
While this emote system may be a bit controversial in some circles, it sounds like it's unlikely to change. "For now, we continue to feel this is the right decision for Hearthstone, and are not planning to change this approach in the near future," Chayes told Polygon. "If the sentiment of the community changes, and there’s a good indication that the majority of interactions with other players using chat would be positive, at that point we would be happy to reconsider this approach."
To heck with that, I’m overjoyed at the game’s velvet muzzle.
Blizzard has created a comparatively safe space in gaming, and that’s worth preserving. It may be telling that it required us to give up almost all avenues of communication when playing against random opponents, but so be it. My long sessions are made more pleasant by the calls of "Well Played," and "Ooops" that come as I make some good decision and some poor ones, and that’s all I need from my opponents.
If it means I don’t have to hear from anyone else, I’ll gladly shut up as well.