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Responsible Use of Social Media

As reported by PCGamer, the International Game Developer Association (IGDA) is using the ArenaNet firing of Jessica Price as an opportunity to question game companies about their social media policies. Specifically, they have a list of a few dozen questions that game devs should be asking their employers. These are good questions to ask. My suspicion though, is that – much like anyone employed anywhere in the last 20+ years – these policies are already on the books.

So, experiment time. Next time you are at work, please look up your own company’s Responsible Use of Social Media policy. It might be listed under Professionalism/Code of Ethics, and/or Professional Code of Conduct instead. A lot of the time these documents are internal-use only, but here is a refreshingly plain-language example from Adidas (PDF). Relevant bullet-points:

  • Respect your audience. Don’t use ethnic slurs, personal insults, obscenity, or engage in any conduct that would not be acceptable in the adidas Group’s workplace. You should also show proper consideration for others privacy and for topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory (like religion or politics). If you are in a virtual world please behave accordingly. We all appreciate respect.
  • Think about consequences. Imagine you are sitting in a sales meeting and your client brings out a printout of a colleague’s post that states that the product you were about to sell “completely sucks”. Talk about a tough pitch. So, please remember: Using your public voice either internally or externally to trash or embarrass your employer, your customers, your co-workers or even yourself is not okay – and not very smart.

Here’s a page from 2009 talking about the the LA Times’ policy. Relevant:

SOCIAL MEDIA GUIDELINES
Social media networks – Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and others – provide useful reporting and promotional tools for Los Angeles Times journalists. The Times’ Ethics Guidelines will largely cover issues that arise when using social media, but this brief document should provide additional guidance on specific questions.

Basic Principles

• Integrity is our most important commodity: Avoid writing or posting anything that would embarrass The Times or compromise your ability to do your job.

• Assume that your professional life and your personal life will merge online regardless of your care in separating them.

• Even if you use privacy tools (determining who can view your page or profile, for instance), assume that everything you write, exchange or receive on a social media site is public.

• Just as political bumper stickers and lawn signs are to be avoided in the offline world, so too are partisan expressions online.

Now, Jessica Price has been quoted many a time as saying that she brought up her social activism during the hiring process at ArenaNet, and that they supported and encouraged her to continue. I will believe that on face value, as I can certainly imagine ArenaNet doing so.

Here’s the one, crucially important detail: Price was not fired for expressing feminist views or activism. She was fired for the much more mundane reason of insulting her employer’s customers.

Polygon has another article up lamenting Price’s firing as “reinforcing gaming culture’s worst impulses.” Considering it was Price who called a completely harmless, inoffensive streamer a “rando asshat” for daring to question her expertise – on top of specifically stating she does not have to pretend to like anyone – you’d be excused if you originally thought the article was defending Deroir.

Actually, you wouldn’t be excused, because the article is such poorly written garbage that any editor should be embarrassed for having it published:

[…] ArenaNet’s president, Mike O’Brien, issued a statement on Guild Wars 2’s forums stating that “two of our employees failed to uphold our standards of communicating with players.”

O’Brien’s statement is actively dangerous; it takes at face value bad-faith arguments made by aggrieved people online who may or may not be players. “Their attacks on the community were unacceptable,” O’Brien wrote of Fries and Price. “As a result, they’re no longer with the company.”

It’s not an accurate statement, and the precedent it sets is a bad one for gaming. Fans and developers bristling at each other on social media is a common fact of gaming, but what makes this situation so unique is O’Brien’s inability to act like an adult.

Ah, so it was O’Brien’s inability to act like an adult that is the real problem here? Next paragraph:

It might be a controversial thing to say right now, but Deroir’s original tweet wasn’t overtly offensive. Players who think they know more than they actually do about development are common, and the belief isn’t always rooted in sexism. But Deroir’s lack of empathy for what happened throughout this controversy is notable, as is his claim that he’s a feminist. For that to be more than a word in a tweet, he should have understood how his tweet came off, and where Price’s anger came from.

The root of Price’s anger is completely immaterial to anything. Again, check your own company’s Responsible Use of Social Media policy. Is there any provision in there for “long history of systemic oppression?” I doubt it. That’s not because there isn’t a long history of systemic oppression, mansplaining, or microaggressions. It’s because they don’t matter in context. An explanation of a behavior is not an excuse for it. Price berated a customer, and she was fired for doing so.

The fundamental error from the Polygon article though, is this buried sentence:

Price’s response makes perfect sense in that context, and is the sort of social media venting that is hardly seen as scandalous in 2018.

People lose their jobs for less all the goddamn time, especially in 2018.

I’m bringing this all up again because I legitimately believe nearly every other company would have done the same thing as ArenaNet in this scenario. In fact, I reached out to Polygon to get a copy of their own policies on the matter. If they respond, I will either update this post or write another one. In the meantime, you can look at their Community Guidelines, which includes:

Personal attacks: Don’t attack or insult another user. It’s not helpful and it doesn’t make Polygon a friendly place. This includes referring to other people as trolls, fanboys, sheep, white knights, etc. If you’re thinking of using a specific term such as a racial or derogatory insult, think again about why that’s a bad idea, and don’t do it

Maybe Polygon would be fine with one of their editors talking about “hurt manfeels” and “rando asshats” when responding to their readers, industry sources, or business partners. Perhaps they would have let it slide, or gave Price the opportunity to apologize or retract her statements (assuming she would).

I guess we will just have to wait and see, because this sort of thing is more a matter of when, not if.

Employees always represent the company they work for, 100% of the time. Right now, most of us skate through life just fine either because of anonymity or because companies lack the resources to constantly monitor our social media activity until and unless it shows up in the papers. Polygon can blame “toxic fandom” and GamerGate for increasing awareness of Jessica Price’s tweets, but none of that actually accounts for why the story caught fire in the first place: Price’s words being legitimately outrageous overreaction. That’s why the calls of concern over a scary future in which GamerGate can get anyone fired are so ridiculous. She wasn’t fired because of social justice or feminism, she was fired for publicly berating customers.

When your brand is dependent upon transactional relationships with dedicated fans, belittling one who has his own in-game NPC is probably not the best of ideas.

Steamy

I am not a frequent reader of Polygon, but their recent (hit) piece on Steam is interesting. There is a lot going on in the article, but these are the two thesis paragraphs:

This, then, is Good Guy Valve — a corporation which employs precision-engineered psychological tools to trick people into giving them money in exchange for goods they don’t legally own and may never actually use while profiting from a whole lot of unpaid labor and speculative work … but isn’t “evil.”

This is the Good Guy everyone seems too afraid to call out, the toxic friend who is so popular that upsetting him will just make things worse for you, so you convince yourself he’s really not that bad and that everyone else is over-reacting. Once the Good Guy illusion has disappeared, we’re left with the uncomfortable truth: Valve is nothing more than one of the new breed of digital rentiers, an unapologetic platform monopolist growing rich on its 30 percent cut of every purchase — and all the while abrogating every shred of corporate or moral responsibility under the Uber-esque pretense of simply being a “platform that connects gamers to creators.”

Basically, Valve conned us 13 years ago into believing they were the Good Guys, to the point that we unapologetically ascribe sins to Origin and UPlay that Valve themselves invented, and still perform where not prevented by EU law. Shkreli would give his left nut for the amount of free advertising that blasts over the internet for every Steam sale. All of this, all of this free money coming in, all this outrage over other corporations screwing over customers and employees alike… and we still eat it up for Valve.

I will admit that this article gave me pause.

It is a weird situation to find myself in, especially given that I am Pro-Consumer. Have you heard about Consumer Surplus? I invented that term. I will talk all day about how obscene it is for Blizzard to charge $25 for a character transfer, but spend zero time talking about how Valve takes a 75% cut of community-created DotA item/model sales.

That said, I’m not entirely sure there is a contradiction there, much less a cause for proletarian revolt.

Look, most of us grew up in the pre-Steam days. Do you remember what buying PC games was like? It was chaos. Sometimes you needed to keep the CD in the tray to play the game, sometimes you didn’t. Sometimes the publishers installed a rootkit on your machine, sometimes they didn’t. The first time I ever “pirated” a game was with Command & Conquer 3 because the disc I bought from the store wouldn’t play; there was either a scratch on the CD or some bug or something, but it instantly crashed on boot. Downloading a Day 1 crack on a game you just bought for $50 and couldn’t even return is pretty emblematic for that time period.

In short, Steam saved the PC gaming industry. It provided a framework in which the industry could grow, while simultaneously providing immense value to gamers. Steam sales actually were revolutionary at the time – the only times you ever got a discount elsewhere was when the game was in a bargain bin. Steam sales are disappointing these days, for sure, in a world of GreenManGaming, Amazon discounts, and all the other storefronts. Whom deliver Steam keys 99% of the time. Which is what most gamers want, considering the platform itself is immensely stable in comparison to oh, say, RockStar’s Social Club.

There are legitimate complaints regarding Steam. The Support sucks, so I have heard. It took them entirely too long to introduce Refunds, and I understand that that only came under threat of court orders. I’m also sure that the author’s claims regarding reimbursement percentages for selling character models is probably true.

But overall, I think the article is mostly attacking a straw man. There will be Valve fanboys, just as there are Apple fanboys. The difference is that Apple is a walled garden of overpriced, proprietary bullshit. Steam appears to be a near-monopoly… but based on what, exactly? Origin (or GOG, etc) might indeed be the better gaming platform these days… if it weren’t for the fact that they have an absurdly low (in comparison) library of available titles. Does Steam have exclusivity agreements that nobody knows about? If not, who is really responsible for its market share? No one is stopping anyone from opening a competing service that only takes 25% of the cut or whatever.

The bottom line is that nobody is being tricked here. Uber intentionally treating their entire workforce as contractors to avoid paying for health benefits or time off is not at all the same as “tricking” people into buying videogames over the internet. The damning “culture of cliques” at Valve is laughable; welcome to everywhere. Hell, if you want to see an abused workforce, take a gander over at Amazon warehouse for a moment.

“Good Guy Valve” is a marketing fiction, sure… but built on the back of a decade of actual value.