While the recent debacle with Facebook and its misuse of user data may come as no surprise, it certainly has reminded us that almost everything about us is out there. Companies know that most people will not crawl through their terms of service and read every single detail about the collection and use of their personal data. Therefore, it is quite common for legal issues to arise when a social media platform is used for the purposes of slander, defamation, or marketing, sometimes all three (I’m looking at you Wendy’s).
Subsequently, the charges against Facebook were dropped and, ultimately, the liability fell on the students for their defamatory comments even though they were private. However, what does all of this have to do with the game industry?
With developers having direct access to fan feedback on social media, defamation becomes common place. There are several cases in gaming within the past year that show the volatility of comments about companies, fans, and games. The iconic sparring between game critic Jim Sterling and James Romine of Digital Homicide is just one of the few examples of lawsuits that leave the game industry in no man’s land regarding opinion pieces. After publishing a YouTube video criticizing Romine’s game Slaughtering Ground in 2014 and 2 years of fighting DMCA takedowns, Jim Sterling along with 100 other Steam users were sued by the developer for defamation.
There wasn’t much of a legal precedent for this case, especially because Romine entered the trial pro se, representing himself instead of the company he worked for. Ultimately, the case was settled out of court, so no legal precedence about defamation regarding game reviews was created. View that as you will; it still leaves developers and critics wondering where the line between valid opinion and personal attacks is.
Just recently, CEO of AREA35 Hiroaki Yura won a Tokyo lawsuit against former employee Tariq Lacy for claiming that Yura embezzled Kickstarter money to fund another project being made by AREA35. Here, it is assumed that Yura was able to prove that the money was, in fact, not embezzled and that Lacy made the claim with malicious intent. Regardless, the court found Lacy responsible and ordered a public apology. In this case, the developer was able to prove that the statements made by the plaintiff were false and intended to cause damage. While this case is not the first of its kind, it certainly has provided some sort of legal precedence for the game industry in Japan.
So where do these cases leave developers who have personal or company accounts on social media? Many developers use their accounts to talk with their audience and often receive direct feedback, good and bad. Is this an effective use of social media for developers, or is it just too risky?
If a developer is good at receiving, processing, and acknowledging feedback, then social media is one of the most powerful tools a developer can use. If, however, a developer is too close to their work, it can be a PR disaster. Before EA released Battlefield V, they received a lot of backlash from the community for not putting realism at the forefront of development, mainly because the game portrays women at the frontlines of World War II. Without getting into a long and complicated rant about the historical complexity of these claims, it goes to show you that social media is also a powerful tool for a developer’s audience. In response to this backlash, EA chief creative officer Patrick Söderlund said in an interview with Gamasutra that, “we stand up for the cause, because I think those people who don’t understand it, well, you have two choices: either accept it or don’t buy the game.”
Strong statement, but is it the greatest response? Probably not, because Söderlund left EA just two months later after the Cowen Group reported that the pre-order sales of Battlefield V were 85% behind Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. Whether or not you support Söderlund’s viewpoint, it is probable that his comments on social media hurt the game’s performance.
So, should individual developers be this close in contact with their audience on social media?
Developers just need to make sure that their audience doesn’t get under their skin, which is a lot harder than it sounds. It’s not easy to put your work out there to be judged, but in this industry, it is a necessary skill. A few tips to keep in mind if you are using a personal social media account to interact with your audience:
A vocal player-base means that people are at the very least interested in your game. It is important to make sure that they are heard and acknowledged throughout an open development process to maintain that interest. Again, social media can be a powerful tool for developers because it brings them closer to their audience to hear their needs, wants, and desires. Just don't fall in the trap of posting what first comes to mind, because your audience has power too.
What are some other tips that you can provide to developers who interact with their audience? Comment down below what you think are best practices for social media communication and how other developers can avoid player alienation and lawsuits.