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Microsoft’s Phil Spencer praises devs amid ‘culture of cancellation’

Microsoft’s head of Xbox Phil Spencer says “seeking joy is an act of defiance,” speaking about the importance of games during the New York Game Awards.

Microsoft gaming CEO Phil Spencer

CEO of Microsoft Gaming and head of Xbox Phil Spencer has used an acceptance speech to speak about the importance of games during a time where “it can feel like there is more despair in the world.” He remarks, “As creators, as leaders, as world builders, our greatest responsibility is to inspire and invite joy.” However, some of his comments have drawn criticism for his particular choice of phrasing.

Spencer was given the Andrew Yoon Legend award at the New York Game Awards on Tuesday, and used his acceptance speech to call for unity among game industry leaders, urging them to “turn away from dividing players and creators, and instead towards each other, as we advance and amplify joy together.”

He addresses the pandemic, along with nodding towards the “steady stream of bad news” that has clouded much of 2022 and early 2023. “With the ongoing leapfrogging from crisis to crisis, it feels to me that that joy I experienced as a child has become much more elusive for us all to find, more of a guilty pleasure,” Spencer says, “It feels like today seeking joy is an act of defiance.”

During the speech, Spencer also speaks to “Our creators who bravely and intentionally release their visions to the world, particularly in the current culture of criticism and cancellation.” He adds that as business leaders, “we are called upon to have the courage to protect and nurture this collective joy.”

In many ways, it’s a positive message – one about how games can deliver fun and hope to those in times of trouble and stress. However, Spencer’s choice of words, in particular those about a “culture of criticism and cancellation,” has raised eyebrows among some given the popularity of the phrase ‘cancel culture’ to describe the increased focus on holding companies and individuals accountable for their words and actions.

This statement arrives as the Microsoft Activision-Blizzard buyout faces scrutiny from the US Federal Trade Commission. The ongoing deal follows multiple instances of legal action taken against the Call of Duty publisher since an Activision Blizzard lawsuit filed by the state of California alleging years of discrimination and harassment at the company, which led to many people calling for boycotts of their leading games.

The comments also land in the wake of news that High on Life and Rick & Morty creator Justin Roiland is facing domestic violence charges. They also precede the upcoming Hogwarts Legacy release date – a game that has faced criticism for its intrinsic association with Harry Potter creator JK Rowling, who has made a number of transphobic remarks on social media in recent years.

WB Games says that “J.K. Rowling is not directly involved in the creation of the game.” Nevertheless, there are many who feel that support for the game shows support for Rowling by association. This has led to a recent public statement from a Hogwarts Legacy actor supporting trans rights, following criticism around their decision to appear in the game.

It’s unclear exactly what Spencer’s intent with his phrasing was. It’s possible he might also be speaking more to issues such as the prevalent harassment of game developers on social media, or that his qualms are with the idea of game creators being treated as guilty by association with a particular person or property that they may have had little choice in. Unfortunately, his choice of words has certainly left some feeling uneasy.

You can watch Spencer’s speech in full below, starting at 2:16:30.

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Activision Blizzard’s Chinese publisher Netease has destroyed a WoW statue in protest of a proposed new deal for publishing rights in China. Meanwhile, managers at Activision Blizzard-owned studio Proletariat recently refused to voluntarily recognise a new Activision workers union, in the latest such development from the publisher.