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ArenaNet’s firings reinforced gaming culture’s worst impulses

Instead of de-escalating, the company poured gasoline on the problem

guild wars 2

“Nobody at Arenanet is safe from the hand of Reddit. We’re literally running the company now, they’re in fear of the very users they seek to consort with ... The moment a dev steps out of line or try to talk back to a player, guess what, they’ll know we got their hands on their throat and we can squeeze any time we like.”

This is part of a longer post on Reddit that went viral after Guild Wars 2 narrative designer Jessica Price was fired for a series of tweets she sent in response to a YouTuber, Deroir, who worked closely with developer ArenaNet. A co-worker of Price’s, writer Peter Fries, was also fired for tweets supporting her. 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.

This was fine until it got to management

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.

Price’s response to his tweet was more aggressive than the situation called for, but Deroir’s tweet doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Price’s anger is the result of a long history of men in gaming who try to explain the jobs of women in development to them, and makes perfect sense in that context. While Deroir may not have been the worst example of that trend, his tweet definitely exists in the proud tradition of male gamers talking down to the women who make their games. 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.

So you have a tone-deaf player, and an exhausted developer who called a fan a “rando asshat.” The issue was then grabbed onto by some of the toxic communities in gaming that exist as GamerGate remnants, because women who don’t talk to players with sufficient amounts of fealty make for tempting targets. None of this is particularly new in gaming, nor is any of it unexpected.

Leaders would look at the situation, de-escalate the rhetoric and maybe put a more robust social media policy in place. But O’Brien didn’t want to lead; he wanted to satisfy the mob, and he did it in the worst way possible by firing Price. He walked into a common gaming situation and poured gasoline onto a fire that was never that big to begin with.

Whether O’Brien intended to or not, he helped to perpetuate an ideology situated at the center of a never-ending battle. In his view, Price, who spoke at length about dealing with people in her Twitter mentions telling her how to do her job, was beholden to the Guild Wars 2 community and was at the mercy of itsanger. And so was he. Instead of using this kerfuffle as an opportunity to update ArenaNet’s social media guidelines, he gave the angriest voices what they wanted, and reinforced the idea that misguided gamer outrage not only has a seat at the table, but that seat is at the front.

That’s why so many developers, including Price, expressed their frustration and concerns with a major company like ArenaNet reacting to mob-driven outrage instead of supporting their long-term employees. Price told Polygon:

In 2018, it’s absurd to pretend ignorance of what would happen to a woman fired for speaking about sexism, because he feels she got too uppity. He painted a target on everyone’s back. He didn’t just fail Peter and me, or even the employees for which he was responsible. He failed the entire industry.

He caved to a handful of people and an army of bots and sock puppets,” she added. “Now he’s got almost every female developer I know — as well as some men — furious with him. I’ve got recruiters pinging me promising they’ll steer candidates away from ArenaNet, and game design professors saying they’re going to warn their students away. I’ve also had a lot of ArenaNet co-workers and other industry colleagues contacting me to express how afraid this has made them.

ArenaNet’s actions against two employees — one who didn’t use vulgar language in a tweet, and stepped up to defend a colleague — is setting a dangerous precedent. These tactics continue because they work. O’Brien’s rush to act rewarded the worst behavior in gaming, while doing nothing to help with the situation that was actually placed in front of him. He didn’t just fail his employees; he failed to offer a meaningful path forward in a way that helped the community and his developers.

O’Brien gave the most toxic fans in gaming reason to feel good about their actions, and more motivation to continue targeted harassment against anyone who disagrees with them. Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson recently tweeted about how bizarre he finds these scenarios:

“I’m always amazed how few people know about Gamergate,” Johnson tweeted. “It’s not only the key to understanding so many violent harassment campaigns going on today, it’s lots of the same people angry about the same stuff using the same playbook.”

Adrienne Massanari, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago with a focus on GamerGate, told Polygon that fan entitlement is wrapped up in a number of issues, and has given birth to the idea that fans are owed developers’ time.

“The idea [is] that fans are somehow entitled to these relationships with developers,” Massanari said. “They think they understand the complexities of what that job is, and depending on who’s involved, they may or may not respect those boundaries. It becomes an overwhelming snowball.”

Massanari said there’s a real issue affecting the relationship between fans and companies. The fact that people are celebrating a person’s career ending, Massanari said, just further demonstrates how fraught that relationship has become. Price losing her job may appease the mob, and may let ArenaNet feel like it took appropriate action, but Massanari said questions need to be asked about what this really does for gaming culture overall.

“This means that now people are not going to want to engage with fans at all on Twitter,” Massanari said. “Why would people want to talk to anyone at all? But on some level, they need to have these social media presences, and be contactable. But this proves that people can be punished if you’re a woman and speaking out about an area of your expertise. It’s so predictable in a way, and that’s what makes me so angry.”

In fact, Price told Polygon she was never previously reprimanded by the company for her social media use.

“I was told during my interview and subsequent hiring communications that ArenaNet respected my willingness to speak up on issues in the industry and had no desire to muzzle me,” Price said. “I had, in my time there, zero warnings about my social media use. Everything I said on Twitter was consistent with what I’ve been saying for years and how I’ve been saying it.”

Price didn’t mention whether that included a controversial tweet about the death of game critic and GamerGate apologist John “TotalBiscuit” Bain. Price did reiterate that none of her tweets were brought up by management at ArenaNet, however, and this specific tweet, brought up by the mob after her firing in an effort to paint Price in a negative light, seems to have nothing to do with the situation at hand.

ArenaNet’s decision to fire two developers because of a few frustrated tweets is a stiff reminder that some companies can still be bullied by organized mobs, even four years after we learned how angry gamers weaponized outrage against women.

O’Brien has every right as ArenaNet’s president to disagree with Price’s tweet. He could have used the incident to explore social media standards for employees, standards that Price said she wasn’t aware of at the time of her firing. Price could have received an official warning, and the company could have apologized. None of that happened; Price and Fries were just let go. Here’s the message it sent to the people on Reddit, according to one commenter:

“We can probably fire anyone on the GW2 dev team as long we make a big enough stink.”

They’re going to keep trying, and it won’t stop at ArenaNet. O’Brien sent his own message with this firing: Keep up the outrage, it’s more effective than compassion and leadership.

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