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ArenaNet CEO Mike O’Brien touched off a firestorm in the video game industry when he unilaterally fired two members of the Guild Wars 2 narrative team, Jessica Price and Peter Fries. (Disclosure: I consider Price a friend).
All told, it’s been an ugly week. Harassment is flying about and there are attempts by the mob that went after Price and Fries to try to get other developers fired, particularly women. But O’Brien’s ill-advised move was, in part, the result of what appears to be an entirely opaque or even non-existent social media policy.
Whatever one’s view of the precipitating tweets between Price and a popular GW2 streamer, what now seems clear is that a major structural problem has been exposed at many studios and publishers: a lack of clarity on guidelines for staff using social media.
To some, such guidelines may seem implicit and obvious. Rudeness to your players is a bad idea and should be punished; surely this can be a normative idea rather than something we need to codify? But the problem lies in defining such terms. How far is too far? How much personality can a developer show? And, perhaps most relevant to this case, when is the dev on their “personal time” on social media?
The “too far” question isn’t as easy to answer as some might think. Consider Platinum Games’ Hideki Kamiya who uses his Twitter to routinely insults fans who make polite suggestions.
Or consider this tweet, remarkably similar in tone and structure to the Price tweet that angered so many.
Some have groused about Kamiya’s web presence and called it “unprofessional” but there’s never been a movement to see him torn asunder or “humbled” as there was with Price. Others have suggested that Kamiya’s greater seniority and status gives him some kind of moral right to act as he pleases. But is that standard we really want to set? Found your own company or rise high enough on the corporate ladder and become immune to any accountability?
"How far is too far? How much personality can a developer show? And, perhaps most relevant to this case, when is the dev on their 'personal time' on social media?"
Any standards developed by a studio or the industry as a whole should, after all, be applied consistently.
That’s not easy to do in a realm defined by inconsistency, of course. Social media as a whole has violently fragmented our sense of privacy, and the bounds between private and public have dissolved into fluid borders of subjective opinion and temporality. When I’m talking about this, it’s public. When I talk about that, it’s private. Except if I say it during business hours, perhaps. In the right time zone. And then ten of my followers have twenty different opinions about whether I’m correct.
This archipelago of privacies has been almost impossible for corporations to keep up with, never mind individuals. We may post in one context, expecting our words to remain in a narrow circle of followers, but the winds of virality were blowing in the right direction to suddenly expose you to thousands of other people who neither know nor care about your implicit expectation of privacy. Is social media a cafe where you’re out with your friends, where it’d be rude for someone to butt into your conversation? Or is it a public forum, with you speaking at a microphone to a vast audience entitled to cheer or jeer you? When these contexts collapse onto each other, the results are devastating.
So far as a game studio is concerned, then, there are three broad questions they need to answer with clarity.
Is anything said after business hours, outside the office, off-limits to your policy?
Do you view social media as a forum or a place where the employee can conduct private conversations in a manner of your choosing? If you say ‘both’, where and when will you draw the line?
What are the exceptions? (As there surely must be; an employee going around calling people the n-word, say, will always merit punishment regardless of when and where they use the slur. Some cases can indeed be severe).
In the absence of a policy, who could blame developers for thinking they have free reign? The worst rules are the implicit and unspoken ones.
There’s a deeper issue here that needs to be discussed, however, and it ties into the wider rumblings about labour politics and unionisation. A clear social media policy protects both the company and the worker, but in the worker’s case it also serves as a charter delimiting what, exactly, their labour consists of. How much are you required to engage with fans? On what terms? In or outside of business hours? Is your personal social media a place where engagement with fans is necessary? Or only on the company forums? When speaking to fans/players, what do you owe them?
After all, if you’re a developer, then you’re not really in a client-facing position. You are not customer service (though, to my mind, the many gamers likening a dev’s job to, say, positions at Starbucks and McDonald’s are making an excellent case for improving working conditions in the service industry). But if you aren’t customer service, what, then, do you reasonably owe irate gamers?
In an industry where interacting with developers is seen as both precious and desirable, you as a dev should be aware of the fact that you’re not only selling your skill as a designer, artist, writer, or coder, but as a personality. You’re not, however, usually given clear guidelines on what the latter demands of you, or what it’s worth in monetary terms. Perhaps you should be.
A community manager is, at least expected to perform a client-facing job and thus the value of her labor is tied to that. What you’re “selling” is a good emotional experience for the customer; you’re selling people skills. As a dev, theoretically, you’re “selling” a good gaming experience, not a fuzzy personal encounter. But the latter is implicitly expected of you nonetheless.
According to Price herself, there was no indication from ArenaNet that her web presence was a problem or a risk to her career at the company. Indications are that no social media policy existed. In a climate where some developers are allowed to act like, say, Hideki Kamiya, confusion is inevitable and it’s impossible to expect devs to “just know” what’s right and what’s expected of them. Indeed, it seems like O’Brien was expecting his staff to read his mind. This is not sustainable.
Getting clarity on all this feels more vital than ever. In academic-ese, social media is known as a “distanceless public,” meaning that barriers to accessing people in relatively lofty positions are few and far between. We can all reach out and touch each other, for better and (more often) for worse. What is expected of developers in this space is less than clear. If engaging with people is a skill--and it absolutely is--then it should be compensated as such, especially if failing at it is what costs you your job.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.