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Why You Should Not Blame EA Louse
by Jacek Wesolowski on 10/16/10 11:12:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Before automated sensors were invented, coal mines used canary birds as their early detection systems. Coal mines are vulnerable to carbon monoxide and methane contamination: the former is odourless, colourless, and lethal, while the latter is flammable.

In case of buildup, a canary bird would stop singing and choke to its death, prior to gas concentration becoming dangerous to humans. It might become useless to you at this point, but you would still need to evacuate miners and let the fresh air in.

Invention of automated sensors made some coal mines more vulnerable, because, unlike a bird, a sensor can be configured to set off the alarm when gas concentration exceeds arbitrary threshold. A fairly common practice is to re-configure the sensor when it starts to indicate danger, rather than giving everyone a break. Occasionally, methane explodes, and humans die.

Game development teams are just as vulnerable to bad atmosphere as a coal mine, if less literally, and they have their early detection systems as well. These are not automated: sufficiently reliable software development practices have not been invented yet. The “dangerous gases” of game development are failures in communication. They take a variety of forms, from personal conflicts to faulty review processes, to unreliable schedules. Gossip is their most common byproduct.

Remember: gossip is not a danger in itself. Gossip is the carrier. It facilitates communication. It carries all kinds of data, from personal rumours to the newest corporate policy.

A healthy team has a rumour mill just like a troubled team does, and grinds the exact same kind of gossip. But in a healthy team, when Adam says Bob eats children for breakfast, everybody thinks Adam doesn’t like Bob. In a troubled team, Adam says Bob eats children for breakfast, and everybody thinks they need to hide their children from Bob. In other words, there is enough “fresh air” in a healthy team to render your communication failures harmless. In troubled teams, there is buildup.

A failure in communication occurs when there is a personal conflict or a schedule slip, but not when people talk about it. A rumour is the team’s self-diagnostic process. You can kill it, tell everyone it’s not true, forbid them from repeating it, but that will just make them spawn a new rumour, because the communication failure is still there.

You can announce that Bob can’t eat children because he’s vegetarian, and next day in the morning Charlie will say Bob has a magic wand that turns children into lettuce. The content of rumour doesn’t matter much, in that it’s essentially random. The gist of it is that something has caused people to turn against Bob before the rumour was there at all.

And yet, most companies install a fairly strict “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Criticising anything, or anyone, is either forbidden or strongly discouraged. For instance, telling your boss he’s having a bad idea is interpreted as insubordination. People are quite literally told to never say there is any kind of trouble. Larger companies in particular tend to turn their noisy sensors off, hoping that it will make problems go away. But it only causes the buildup to accelerate, even in teams which would remain healthy under different circumstances.

It’s quite simple, really. When people are prevented from interacting freely, they communicate less. There are a number of things they cannot do or say in a straightforward manner, so they communicate less efficiently. So they fail more often.

EA Louse is the kind of sound that your team’s most sensitive canary bird makes as it drops dead. It probably stopped singing some time ago, but you didn’t notice. Or maybe you did, but you threatened to put it to sleep if it doesn’t start singing again. In any case, its final sound is unpleasant, because it yells "DANGER!" right in your ear.

Is it really cowardly to rant anonymously about your co-workers, whom you identify with their real names? Well, of course it is. But the word “coward” wouldn’t occur to anyone if this wasn’t a matter of courage. People write stuff like this, because they can’t take the tension anymore, and they do so anonymously, because they’re afraid. Something’s been driving them seriously nuts.

Just for the record: it could - potentially - be something different than their job. And just because they genuinely believe Bob eats children for breakfast doesn’t necessarily mean Bob is guilty at all. But they’re not a problem. They’re a symptom. You should thank them, give them a vacation, and pay for their therapist. 

And don't forget to let the fresh air in.

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Andre Gagne
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I find that there's a lot in here that needs citation, can you back up any of your claims about rumor mills being positively important?

On the other hand here are some citations on the subject:

Workplace bullying (utilizes the rumor mill):

An investigation of personality and its effects on the workplace:

EA Louse was ranting and burning bridges left and right, it was entertaining to a degree but was filled with lies from the rumor mill and maybe hints at why they were let go (no one wants to work with a hater).

There's listening to your employees as a litmus test of how the company is doing, but then there's also treating any rant from an "insider" as gospel. We must do both carefully.

P.S. I hope that the EA Louse likes eating ramen because I have a feeling that's all they'll be able to afford after the lawyers get done with them (provided they didn't cover their tracks well enough).

Jacek Wesolowski
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I didn't say, nor even suggest, that you should treat "insider rants" as gospel. In fact, the last paragraph is an explicit disclaimer against this very kind of criticism, and I would aprreciate it if you didn't try strawman arguments again, thank you.

I also didn't say rumour mills are "positively important". I said gossip is the carrier, i.e. a way for people to communicate. What they are saying and how they are reading it is more important than how they are saying it. Gossip does not only spread information, but also verifies it. In fact, many common workplace bullying techniques rely on selective misinformation.

[Like that one time when my superior told everyone I was sucking up to his superior, which was plausible in that the uber-boss was a tyrant, and I did make positive comments about several of his ideas. The only thing my superior forgot was that some guys had known me for some time already, and had already told everyone that I was one of the biggest nonconformists they had ever met. Even though my superior had worked there for several years, and I was a newcomer, everybody concluded that I was all right and he was overreacting. At that point, my superior still had an option to back off, which he didn't, which in turn is how I know he wasn't just overreacting after all.]

There is a difference between rumour and slander, in that the former is just one way to propagate the latter. There are techniques, such as sabotaging one's work environment without relaxing work requirements, which serve the exact same purpose through different means. But nobody in their right mind will forbid workplace hierarchy just because there is mobbing. When rumour, or any other technique, leads to slander, you should not be asking yourself if you need less rumour -- instead, you should be asking yourself why people are failing to recognise slander as such.

Also the funny thing about gossip is that when Adam says there will be a new corporate policy, and the policy is eventually installed, we say Adam was well informed. But if Adam says there will be a new corporate policy, and a different policy is installed (because, say, someone protested and caused the board to change their mind), we say Adam was spreading rumour. In fact, Adam may even get in trouble, if someone figures out that the sheer fact that the board was seriously considering an unpopular decision puts the board in a bad light.

Also also, picking tangentially relevant citations at random is unscientific, and none of us is going to perform actual research, so I'd suggest we stick to anecdotal evidence for the sake of sanity.

Andre Gagne
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Sorry about that,

I must have been influenced by your title and I should have used the references correctly.

by the last bit of my comment i was referring to this post:

This means that EA Louse is borderline libelous.

Alan Youngblood
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Wow, this is the best analysis of EA Louse yet. I felt like s/he wasn't really a problem either. Standing up for what you believe in and trying to thwart crappy workplace environments is never a bad idea. You could lose your job, you could get blacklisted by other employers, but let's face it, there's plenty worse things you could do out there. (Like keep working in a lethal coal mine when you know it's time for a break, or any other lethal environment).

Rock on, get some fresh air people!

Adam Bienias
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I agree on what Jacek said. It doesn't matter how bad gossip sounds. Even a good gossip can turn bad in unhealthy environment. One could say "then let's not say anything", but the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is the major source of bad environments.

@Andre: Bear in mind that we usually work in a teams of people that work closely with each other. We're not a mindless drones doing their part of the job. Communication is extremely important, and if someone feels has samething to say, then should be able to openly say it.

FYI: I didn't say that Bob eats children for breakfast. I said "at dinner"... and not "children" but "guitar", and not "eats" but "plays".