I remember when I first went online as the representative of a big company. It was 2001, and I was working in the digital division of Lego, the world’s largest producer of plastic toy bricks. Before I’d gotten three posts into talking with Lego fans in online forums, I was called in to talk to the head of our whole division — not because I’d done anything wrong, but to get advice on being myself while also representing the company, as well as expressing disagreement or pushing back on misapplied expectations without losing my cool. To be clear, it wasn’t remotely part of my job description to do public relations or be a spokesperson, even though I had six years of experience with online community management in smaller-scale contexts. My job was producing websites and web games based on the latest Lego toys, but I was willing to use some of my spare time to reach out and talk to fans.
In the years since, as the internet has become a larger part of everyone’s lives, more and more developers in the game industry have done what I did: take a moment to communicate with fans and players. But as the debacle surrounding ArenaNet’s firing of Jessica Price shows, developers in 2018 don’t necessarily get the support needed to engage with players online; it’s far too easy for their employers to consider this kind of extra work an afterthought, abandoning developers completely or throwing them to the wolves when trouble erupts.
My boss didn’t give me a litany of cautious advice just out of worry over communications going awry; for that he could have just told me to log off. He also knew the value of being a human being talking openly with fans, and appreciated my extra service enough to advise me on how to do it. It wasn’t always easy, because Lego fans have a long history of being upset about everything from prices to oversized, single-function pieces. At times I got into arguments I shouldn’t have, or had to rein in my involvement — but over the years, projects like Lego Digital Designer and Design byME would never have happened without those lines of communication.
Things are different these days. I’ve contributed to another couple dozen released game titles, and spend most of my time teaching aspiring game developers. One of the things they’re taught is to establish an online presence for themselves and their games; it’s one way to make a name for yourself. When a game company hires a developer, the developer often comes with a social media presence and followers, a style of communication, a … do we have to say it? Yes, a personal brand.
Make no mistake: In many cases this is regarded as a perk for the employer, an intangible extra benefit, a creative voice willing to write a devlog or do an AMA on Reddit. Just as surely, it’s rarely a kind of work that’s set forth in the job description as part of the position’s compensated duties. It comes as no surprise that Price reports that ArenaNet fully approved of her online presence and communication style when she was hired.
All this has happened before
What ever happened to game companies supporting and providing guidance for employees willing to talk about their work in public? For over a decade, Raph Koster was one of the creative forces behind some of the biggest online games of the time (primarily Ultima Online and Star Wars: Galaxies), so I asked him how things had changed. According to Koster, company policies varied, but his bosses at Electronic Arts put a number of people on the creative team through media training to facilitate talking to player communities.
Koster also reminded me of one of the most infamous player-developer conflicts of his decade in the trenches: the shutdown of Everquest’s “Ask Milo” column, where players could write in with queries for Milo Cooper, the senior artist and character modeler. Cooper was known for answering and often mocking even the most hostile and ignorant letters, which turned out to be his downfall. When a self-proclaimed Jeet Kune Do master wrote in calling him a fat moron and challenging him to a fight outside the Sony Online offices, Cooper responded with “Shut up and give me my ten bucks per month, little man. My Porsche needs some performance upgrades.” Although clearly a sarcastic piece of bait tossed at a puffed-up troll, this quote was snipped out, passed around by players, and quoted for over a decade as emblematic of developer arrogance, contempt, and greed.
Of course, very few Everquest employees got a share of player subscription revenue, and developer salaries weren’t sumptuous enough for the kind of luxury cars and hot rods infamously owned by successful studio founders like John Carmack. He was riffing on the mistaken notion that all game developers were rich, and he had to learn a lesson about sarcasm and the internet the hard way. Cooper had to shut down the advice column, and even as players continued to call for his head on a pike, Sony never fired him for it. He just never again spoke out online about Everquest: one less human voice, and one less visible game developer of color. In 2014, Cooper finally left the game industry.
There’s an alternative to letting players communicate with developers like human beings: dry press releases and official statements, of the blank-faced, robotic variety that can be met with howls of outrage, which in turn won’t receive a single human reply. In my experience, fans often say they prefer speaking with developers who can act like human beings as opposed to spokesbots — but somehow it’s always someone who has acted like an emotional, fallible, impatient human being, even for a moment, who ends up being accused of unprofessional behavior, fired, or with a harassment target painted on her back by her former boss.
Angry players may claim to want respect, but what’s really more respectful: a human who’ll tell you honestly if you’re getting on their nerves, or the fixed smile of a customer service rep who’s walled themselves off safely behind a feedback form and a scripted response?
And will happen again
When we see a dynamic that pits workers against customers, we should always ask who might actually be benefitting from that conflict, or the roots of the conflict. Recent years have seen a resurgence of players thinking of themselves as consumers. While consumer advocacy in games was never quite as vital as in the 20th century model of Unsafe at Any Speed (where consumer advocacy led to the seatbelt) for some years it was at least targeting corporate payola schemes to manipulate review scores.
In 2014, Gamergate fouled the waters completely by wadding up harassment against progressive voices in games under an “ethics in game journalism” banner, a term so much more high-minded than the underhanded tactics it was plastered over that it quickly became impossible to take seriously. Even if the reactionary tides of harassment hadn’t overflowed, consumer movements are always bounded by the idea of “money makes right.”
Players who think of themselves as consumers first and foremost are always going to feel disempowered and disenfranchised; it comes with thinking about your own power and agency as a function of your disposable income. That’s in the nature of consumer capitalism, which promises choice and empowerment through spending money, but never delivers that in a lasting or emotionally satisfying way. “Consumer power” is always a disempowered fake-out from the start.
A consumer, defined only by the amount they have to spend, is stuck in an inhuman system; the cry of “can’t I talk to a human being?” becomes all-too understandable. In the late decades of the 20th century, more and more companies began using language and communication approaches that aimed to imbue human feeling and personal warmth to what would otherwise be a cold exchange of currency and goods. Customers became “community” and a transaction became a “relationship.”
Any drop of personal warmth is justified in part to generate repeat business and customer loyalty, of course, but to the extent that loyalty was generated, this language also had an effect on the identities, feelings and expectations of everyone involved. All the people constituting a company were now in a “relationship” with all customers of that company, and who doesn’t want a relationship to involve sufficient contact, respect, and positive human feeling? It’s a lot to carry, even suggestively, even in an age where we all know that 5,000 social-media friends doesn’t translate to 5,000 heart-to-heart chats.
We might assume that humanizing a consumer transaction is a good thing, but let’s face it: pretending that all “customer relationships” are human relationships is the equivalent of a skinjob, loosely draping a synthetic face over an emotionless robot chassis. Companies can’t provide warm, caring relationships, even with an army of script-following customer service staff. They can only provide the barest simulacra of a relationship, through forced, polite smiles and reassuring non-answers that sound “respectful” on the surface.
We shouldn’t be surprised when more anger erupts in response to this bare pretense of caring, compassion, personal relationships, and tangible community participation. Nobody is really having their human needs fulfilled here. Even if we say that we know these aren’t “real relationships,” we keep talking about them as if they are — and angry customers keep talking of deserving the care and attention that we once only expected of human relationships. Companies are poorly equipped to truly care for or respect their consumers–business practices, in the end, can only generate the further expectation that an institution knows about and wants to care.
If a company is so big and powerful, why can’t it care? Because only humans can care, and the human beings deployed by an employer are given just three options: the choice to stay silent (as ArenaNet’s Mike O’Brien suggested in a follow-up statement), the choice to act like robots, or the choice of being too human and risking the consequences.
Who bears the burden?
As social media has facilitated more direct communication, it’s developers who’ve dropped the facade of detached professional politeness who carry most of that risk. Act like a human being, with all the feelings and swings that entails, and you’re more likely to face retaliation and punishment for interactions that could be understood as sarcasm, a bad mood, or built-up impatience in another, more human context like a social event or a chat at a convention. In recent days we’ve also seen a pattern of women being disproportionately targeted by player outrage, from Price to Hazel Montforton to Jennifer Schuerle.
Women have traditionally and stereotypically been tasked with the labor to maintain human relationships, to care for the emotional needs of other people in every age range, so we shouldn’t be surprised that women are the first to be scrutinized and censured for any amount of carelessness. Any company that purports to want a diverse workforce shouldn’t pretend that the creative strength of a diverse team doesn’t also need diverse forms of support, especially when it comes to online reactions and harassment.
Even back in 2000, when a supposed martial arts master challenged Cooper to a duel in the Sony Online parking lot, it was Cooper’s photo that the angry player was taking offense at: one of the few photos of black developers on the Everquest team. Was race a factor in all the angry, challenging, “fight me” responses to Cooper’s column? Even if it’s hard to say for certain, that kind of animus would be part of another long and unsurprising pattern.
In the days since Price was fired, a handful other game companies have started rethinking internal policies about online harassment and engagement on social media, in some cases trying to combat the “us vs them” mentality or strike a different note than ArenaNet’s kneejerk abandonment of its employees. Developers shouldn’t have to choose between never talking about creative work online, the demeanor of a blank-faced corporate spokesbot, and becoming the target of an angry mob — especially since public dialogue benefits not only curious players but colleagues in the game industry, the media, students, and many more. Some studios will step up to back their devs’ capability to be human, under their own names and identities, in the public eye. Others inevitably won’t, either imposing draconian restrictions or shirking their responsibilities completely — and that’s yet another reason why the movement to unionize game workers continues to grow.
Naomi Clark is a professor at the NYU Game Center. She’s been making games for a living since 1999, and she has contributed to over three dozen released titles.