Wednesday, July 25, 2018

History Repeats Itself, Part Whatever

The latest kerfuffle to shake up the MMO world while I've been away was the firing of two GW2 employees after getting in a Twitter spat with a GW2 streamer.*

It's a bit more complicated than that, as Reddit, bots, and ArenaNet upper management got involved. Having the specter of the Gamergate Squad raising hell didn't exactly help, either. The net result, however, is very clear: upper management of ArenaNet sided with the customers and fired Jessica Price and Peter Fries within a day or two of the kerfuffle.

Given the crap that keeps showing up in my YouTube "suggested feed", you'd think that people are ready to start shooting over this incident. This is Gamergate all over again, with one side harassing and threatening Price and Fries (and yelling about how GW2's narrative sucked anyway) while the other side is yelling about how terrible ArenaNet behaved in throwing the employees under the bus after having said that they'd be supportive when Price was hired. It's gotten to the point where you can find out which side a website is on just by reading the titles of the articles and not have to refer to the content**.

I'll be up front in that I felt that Price and Fries were thrown under the bus by ArenaNet, because I've seen this sort of thing happen in the larger "non-gamer" world, so that saddens but doesn't shock me. However, I also feel that ArenaNet's behavior --specifically President Mike O'Brien-- shows just how much the gaming world is completely dependent upon streamers/bloggers/vloggers/etc for their business plan.


In the early 90's, I worked at Radio Shack, and one of the first things I learned while working there was that the dictum "the customer is always right" was a lie. The customer was not always right, and frequently the customer didn't know anything at all about what they wanted to do***. There were also plenty of times when somebody brought in an item as a "return", showing obvious signs of hard use and/or breakage, and when we refused the return the customer complained through corporate until a regional director told us to eat the return.

I mention that story because ArenaNet's behavior is entirely predicated on trying to keep as many people happy as possible because they can't afford to piss off one of the influencers in gaming space and wrecking their business plan.

Influencers, or rather influencer marketing, is the type of marketing that focuses on getting a few targeted customers --the influencers-- to rave about your product. Think of the influence that PewDiePie has by virtue of his 64 million subscribers to his YouTube account, and you can see why game companies would want to court PewDiePie for his (hopefully good) opinion of a game they're developing. If you can get an influencer to promote your game, you're getting what amounts to free advertising. If an influencer pans your game, that's bad press you can't afford to have.

In theory, this gives a company that free press and it builds goodwill between the company and the buying public. However, it also makes a company far more subservient to the whims of those influencers because of the outsized influence they have in many markets, gaming included. The ultimate influencer is, of course, Oprah Winfrey, who could turn a book hardly anybody was reading into a best seller just by a good word on her part.****

Remember how I mentioned that the customer is not always right? In this case, Deroir, the GW2 streamer and influencer, should have known better than to try to explain to a developer how to do her job. He may have thought he was having a discussion with give and take, but the tone came out as condescending to somebody who actually works in the industry. It would be like me trying to tell a brewer how to brew beer: I love beer, I know quite a bit about the brewing process, and I homebrewed beer for about 8 years. But that doesn't give me the level of expertise to go to brewmasters and contradict them when they talk about brewing beer.

And this doesn't even cover the mansplaining aspect of Deroir's response to Price's tweets.

At the same time, ArenaNet operated completely out of fear: fear that they'd upset one of their big influencers, that there was an EA level public relations disaster brewing, and that their business plan of utilizing influencers was about to blow up. So they threw Price and Fries --who came to Price's defense-- overboard.

To ArenaNet, the influencers were more important than their employees.

As for Price and Fries, they had to have thought in the back of their heads that this might be the end result of getting into a social media spat. I know I tend to keep just about all of my work related activities under wraps, and I tend to avoid dealing with social media --particularly Twitter-- as much as possible. Video game devs, however, are caught in a Catch-22: they're supposed to engage the wider community to engender "goodwill" and "interest"***** in the games they help to create, but frequently those sort of interactions can be insulting, sexist, and plain ol' mean. And you're supposed to grin and bear it. When you finally haul off and say what you really think --like what Price thought she would be allowed to say-- you're then called to the carpet for it.


Deroir and the cohort who joined in on the attacks on Price and Fries celebrated their victory, but I fear that in the long run they may have just changed gaming culture permanently. If you are a developer, why would you stick your neck out to interact with an influencer or the gaming community at large when you know that your company will never stick up for you in a dispute? If you are a gaming company, why would you want to risk the double edged sword of using influencer marketing if such a marketing strategy is so easily poisoned?

I'm sure that the Gamergate crowd is thinking that they can force game companies to return video games to being strictly a "boy's club", but my belief is that it will have a completely different effect. Game companies will become more shut in, letting a few carefully chosen PR or Project Manager personnel repeat talking points instead. While game companies can't stop streamers from streaming, they can keep their distance, which would be akin to giving streamers more of a cold shoulder than what they've come to expect.

I also believe the Blizzard portion of Activision Blizzard will remain the exception rather than the rule in keeping the doors wide open to their fans. The WoW fans are a notoriously fickle bunch --after all, I am one so I know something about that-- but they are also loyal to a fault.

The net result for this entire incident is that everybody lost. Even if you think your side won, that victory militarized the other side, and guaranteed the next fight will be even more vicious.

Alas, nobody is going to take the high road any more.

*To be honest, it all blew up right before I began travelling, but I wanted to wait and watch before deciding to comment. The last thing I needed was to start commenting while everything was hitting the fan.

**Or worse, the comment section.

***Once a guy came in looking to buy some new speakers to hook up to his stereo. After a few questions, I quickly discovered that the "stereo" in question was a cheap single unit that didn't even have any way to plug in external speakers. I told him that the speakers wouldn't work because he needed a way to hook them up to his stereo. The guy went away, and some hours later when I was off the clock he came back in and asked a coworker of mine if he could buy the speakers. "Sure," he said, happily ringing them up for a sale. The next morning at 10:05 AM the guy brought the speakers back saying he couldn't figure out how to use them. My coworker got the sale, and the return was on my numbers for the week, not his.

****I saw this in action when she promoted Graeter's, a (then) local chain of ice cream stores, on her television show. Graeter's was one of those gems that only the locals know about, and the quickest way to start an argument around town was to ask someone "Who do you like more, Graeter's or Aglamesis?" Well, the day Oprah promoted Graeter's on her show, our family went to our closest Graeter's for some ice cream. The staff at the store were absolutely bewildered because they were getting phone calls from far away as California to have Graeter's shipped to them, and when one of the customers in line mentioned they'd seen Oprah giving away pints of Graeter's on her show, everything made sense.

*****Did anybody have those two words in their buzzword bingo sheets? I hope somebody was able to yell "Bingo!" inappropriately while at work or something...


  1. Nooo, I was just getting over thinking about this, and now you have to drag it all back up again! :P

    It sure was awkward to see people I like and/or respect come down on completely opposite sides of this issue. It definitely took "controversial" to a new level.

    I also think you vastly overestimate the importance of Deroir's influencer status to ArenaNet's reaction. It was only an issue in so far as it meant that his exchange with Price happened in front of a sizeable audience of Guild Wars 2 players that was quick to jump in and raise a stink. He himself seemed to be quite happy to withdraw from the exchange, but by then the avalanche was already on its way. ANet was simply reacting to customer pressure at that point.

    I also don't really buy the whole mansplaining thing. I even went back to double-check and all he said was that he believed certain changes would make players like the story more. You don't need to be a dev to be able to offer insight on what makes for an entertaining game, just like you don't need to be a chef to comment on what food you like or a film director to review a movie. In your hypothetical example you would absolutely be in a position to have a discussion about what makes a good beer - not about every little detail of brewing, but on a general level, sure.

    I agree with your conclusion though that the whole thing was ultimately ugly and not a good thing, though probably for different reasons. For example my faith in several gaming outlets was severely shaken by the sheer contortions they went through in their reporting to paint Price as a poor, innocent victim of evil sexism. Really makes you think twice about some of the other news they report... plus people trying to play "the woman card" in matters that have nothing to do with gender always risk setting things back somewhat.

    1. I disagree about my beer example, because there's a big difference between a hobbyist --and a not that dedicated one at that-- and a professional. Sure, there are exceptions (and eras, such as 70s/80s computer hobbyists), but in general the hobbyist isn't going to be the expert that the professional is.

      It didn't shock me that Deroir vanished into the background, because he didn't need to say anything; the avalanche was already underway. If you're going to post on Twitter or Instagram or other forms of social media (save blogging, it seems) and get into a fight, it's going to be --by nature-- right in front of a bunch of fans/followers. The main difference here was that in a post-Gamergate world, smallish fights like this turn very quickly into a Great War conflagration as outside groups flood into the breach.

      And no, Price isn't so innocent, and she and Deroir were talking past each other in what their intentions were for the conversation.

      As for the mansplaining thing, I've actually been called out in other environments for doing exactly what Deroir did, because I misread intentions pretty badly. If nothing else, I've learned to keep my mouth shut unless someone explicitly asks me for my opinion. Of course, that's pretty much the opposite of what Twitter is best at: people commenting on just about anything and everything.

      However, I do believe that ANet set a tremendously bad precedent by bowing to the demands of the mob. The best way to handle it would have been to say "hey look, let's take a short break from social media and let everybody cool down rather than rush out and do something stupid."

      And yes, I was not impressed by about all of the reporting on the issue; too many people had incendiary opinions and allowed that to color their reporting. In a post-Gamergate (and Trump) world, the battle lines have been drawn and both sides are becoming more and more militant. This was just another skirmish on that ongoing war.

    2. I'm certainly not cheering over anyone getting fired; it sucks for them. It's just that I'm aware of people constantly getting in trouble and losing jobs over so much less than this that it seems... odd to me to get too worked up about it in this case, when there was definitely a legit grievance, even if one can argue about its severity.

      I think the mob thing is probably the trickiest moral question about this whole issue. There is very little that would cause anyone to deserve to have an internet mob descend on them as happened to Price here (in my opinion). But should that automatically protect them from consequences, just so you can say you're not doing what the mob wants? That doesn't really seem right to me either.

    3. I don't think the internet mob should protect you from consequences, but I also believe that in this case past history --and ANet's own words (according to Price)-- should come into play here. What Price said was that ANet told her when she was hired that they approved of her social media activity, so her understanding was that ANet would back her up in this. If this is true, ANet should have provided some guidance as to what the boundaries were. Price hadn't been fired over social media commentary before, and her social media fight wasn't at the level of the James Gunn firing from Guardians of the Galaxy for some pretty disgusting old tweets, either.

  2. Well, there's a difference between being opinionated and outright insulting customers, implying that you secretly hate them all etc. I can't blame ANet for assuming that would be obvious! Also, another difference between her case and the James Gunn thing is that his stuff is old, had been talked about before and was repeatedly apologised for, while Price still seems pretty unapologetic and was touring the media to talk crap about her old employer immediately afterwards.

    1. I'll grant that as well, and yes, there were plenty of days after work at Radio Shack where I felt exactly like Price did. The major difference is that social media didn't exist back then, and even if so I'd be grousing at home or at a bar rather than on social media.

      Of course, those boundaries are blurred even now, because if you're out at a restaurant --or evven at home-- and griping about work, someone nearby could be secretly recording you to post later, and that posting could then be used to fire you even if you weren't divulging company secrets.

      Twitter is pretty obvious because it's all public, but technology in general has blurred the lines for activity that we used to consider semi-private or private. Price's and Fries' argument that her fight was on her personal Twitter account is disingenuous because Twitter is akin to shouting with a megaphone, and definitely not "private conversation". I've known people who got fired for posts on Usenet, but those posts inadvertently exposed a company strategic direction. Price and Fries didn't divulge company secrets, but they embarrassed ANet. If Mike O'Brien had said the same things, would he have been fired from ANet? I kind of doubt it given the lack of defined limitations; what's allowable for a C-suite person like O'Brien is likely not allowable for devs like Price and Fries.