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Last Updated: Monday, 13 February 2006, 08:42 GMT
Gay rights win in Warcraft world
By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News website

Sara Andrews and Shimmre, Sara Andrews
Ms Andrews and her in-game alter ego - Shimmre
The maker of the hugely popular online game, World of Warcraft, has changed its policy on gay teams following an outcry from many players.

Blizzard was accused of being heavy-handed by threatening to expel a player for advertising a gay-friendly team or guild.

Blizzard has officially apologised to the guild recruiter, saying the warning should never have been issued.

More than five million people regularly play World of Warcraft worldwide.

Team play

Warcraft involves players taking a character adventuring so they become more experienced in their chosen class of warrior, mage, rogue, druid, hunter, shaman, warlock, priest or paladin.

The row blew up around Warcraft player Sara Andrews, who plays a high-level mage called Shimmre on the Shadow Moon server. Each server runs a separate duplicate of the Warcraft world.

Warcraft adventurers, Blizzard
World of Warcraft is a social phenomenon too
Warcraft players are spread out across the realms to make sure the game worlds do not get too crowded.

When adventuring, many players join "guilds" to get help from other players in regions filled with dangerous monsters, get quick access to good magical items and, just as importantly, so they can stay in touch with friends and make new ones.

Many guilds use Warcraft's text chat channels to recruit new members.

In late January, Sara Andrews used these channels to say that the guild she helps run, called Oz, was set up to be gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender "friendly".

But an in-game administrator issued a warning saying that such talk was a breach of Warcraft's terms of service.

She was threatened with being banned from the game if she continued to advertise the Oz guild using such language.

Ms Andrews challenged the warning and the claim that it broke the terms of service. She said many players used homophobic language in the game that went unchallenged.

To publicise her plight, Ms Andrews visited many discussion sites and forums where Warcraft players gather. The debate that followed largely criticised Blizzard for its heavy-handed treatment.

Many pointed out that Warcraft has a thriving community of gay players, or gaymers, and that it made no sense to censor talk about players' sexuality outside Azeroth.

Gay pride marches are known to have taken place in Warcraft and there are many other guilds in the game that are known to be friendly toward the gay community.

Two such guilds, Stonewall Champions and The Spreading Taint wrote an open letter to Blizzard criticising its policy.

Sensitive area

Stone giant, Blizzard
World of Warcraft has become hugely popular
The uproar has prompted Blizzard to officially apologise to Ms Andrews. It said that her comments should not have produced a warning.

In an e-mail to Ms Andrews, Thor Biafore, senior manager of Blizzard's customer service, said: "Please accept our apologies for the way our staff characterized your conduct, and rest assured that your account will not be penalized in any way for this occurrence."

The 1,000 or so in-game administrators Blizzard uses to police Azeroth are also to get training to help them deal more sensitively with such issues.

Blizzard defended itself by saying that information about players' real lives can lead to harassment in the game and its warning was only intended to limit such harassment.

The game firm also said that it would create a separate chat channel in the game that guilds can use to advertise themselves and look for recruits.

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