Jessica Price, who was fired by ArenaNet last week for arguing with fans of the company’s Guild Wars 2 MMO, said she feels betrayed by how the company “folded like a cheap card table” when confronted by toxic fandom. In an interview with Polygon, she talked about the meeting in which she was fired, and castigated ArenaNet managers for their “highly unprofessional” reaction to a social media controversy.
Until last week, Price worked as a narrative designer on Guild Wars 2. Earlier this month, she wrote a lengthy Twitter thread about the differences between writing characters for linear, narrative-driven games and player characters in MMOs. A prominent Guild Wars 2 streamer and YouTube known as Deroir chimed in to disagree. Price later called Deroir out, tweeting: “Today in being a female game dev: ‘Allow me — a person who does not work with you — explain to you how you do your job.’”
The tweet — and a follow-up in which she said, “the next rando asshat who attempts to explain the concept of branching dialogue to me ... is getting instablocked” — triggered a fierce thread on the Guild Wars subreddit. Fans mostly ignored Price’s point about women professionals constantly being questioned by men. They wanted to express their anger about a member of the community being rebuked.
Price’s bosses, it turned out, agreed with the angry fans. Price was called into a meeting with a manager from the narrative department, a human resources person and ArenaNet president Mike O’Brien.
“I was given no opportunity to argue my case,” she said. “My manager was on vacation. [O’Brien] spent some time insisting that developers must be friends with the company’s customers, and that it was unacceptable to say that we aren’t, even when we’re not on the clock. He told me I’d look back and regret this, because we were doing great work and I’d ruined it.
“The whole thing was highly unprofessional,” she continued. “There was zero reason for him to be there. He wanted to vent his anger, and he had the power to command a woman to stand there while he took his feelings out on her, so he did. Then he walked out, [the manager] got my stuff from my desk and the HR person asked for my key card.”
Price later discovered that her colleague Peter Fries, who’d defended her in social media threads, was also fired.
Price said she had no previous problem with her bosses about her social media activities.
“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,” she 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.”
She said she believed that ArenaNet was the sort of company that encouraged individualism and free expression.
“It felt like it was too good to be true when they offered me a job,” she said. “They promised me that I wouldn’t have to check my identity at the door. They said that they admired my willingness to speak up about issues in the industry.
“There was so much that we were doing internally that encouraged me to hope, to trust them. There were executives talking about diversity, and building a nontoxic work environment, and acknowledging that talk wasn’t enough — that they had to put money and effort and leadership behind it.”
That included, Price said, encouragement from ArenaNet management to be outspoken and fearless.
“There were meetings in which executives promised us that they wanted us to speak up about the ugly things, the harmful things, and that we wouldn’t be punished for doing so,” she said. “There was constant talk about how to make it the sort of place that you’d dream of working at, not just because of the cool games we were making, not just because of the benefits and perks, but because it was going to be a corrective to the exploitation and toxicity of so much of the industry.
“And so it’s devastating that a company talking all that talk folded like a cheap card table the first time their values were actually tested. Doing the right thing is hard, sure, but doing it regularly makes it easier to keep doing it. And the corollary to that is that capitulating makes it harder to stop capitulating.”
Bots and sock puppets
Following the firings, O’Brien released a statement saying that Price’s and Fries’ “attacks on the community” were “unacceptable.”
Since the controversy broke, Price has been the target of intense social media harassment and abuse. She believes that O’Brien’s statement contributed to the abuse.
“Let’s be clear: 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,” Price said. “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.”
Price said she hasn’t spoken to Fries since their firings, but plans to talk to him this week. “Peter stepped in to point out that his experience as a male dev was different. He stated pretty simple facts,” she said. “I had no idea he was going to step in. I adore him; he was doing the right thing, and he deserves none of this crap.”
Price is an experienced writer in gaming and has also worked on comics, animated series and novels. Her resume includes companies such as Microsoft and Harebrained Schemes. She said she was previously fired from a role-playing game company for complaining about its lack of response to a male business associate who sexually harassed women at the company.
“At that point, I was contemplating getting out of games,” she said. “But ArenaNet was interested, and I decided to give it another shot. I got into games, specifically game narrative, because I think stories are enormously powerful and I’m interested in exploring how interactive stories are different.”
Following our interview with Price, Polygon contacted ArenaNet for comment. O’Brien issued a further statement to us:
Jessica had identified herself as an ArenaNet employee on Reddit and Twitter, had been discussing Episode 3 storytelling with fans on Reddit, then had written a 25-part tweet about how we tell stories in MMOs, relating it back to Episode 3. She was representing the company. The expectation was to behave professionally and respectfully, or at least walk away. Instead, she attacked.
Concerns have been publicly raised that she was responding to harassment. It’s not my place to tell employees when they should or shouldn’t feel harassed. In this case, however, our employees could have chosen not to engage, and they could have brought the issue to the company, whereby we would have done everything we could to protect them.
We won’t tolerate harassment. When an employee feels harassed, we want them to bring the issue to us, so that we can protect the employee, deal with the issue, and use it to speak to the larger issue of harassment.
Whatever Jessica and Peter felt internally about the situation, this was objectively a customer engaging us respectfully and professionally, presenting a suggestion for our game. Any response from our company needed to be respectful and professional. A perceived slight doesn’t give us license to attack.
We’ve all dedicated our careers to entertaining people, to making games for the purpose of delighting those who play them. We generally have a wonderful relationship with our community, and that’s a point of pride for us. We want to hear from our players. It’s not acceptable that an attempted interaction with our company — in this case a polite game suggestion — would be met with open hostility and derision from us. That sets a chilling precedent.
The tweets were made on July 4, when the studio was closed for the holiday. We were aware of them that day, and decided we’d need to take action in the morning. The fact that the community’s anger was escalating on July 5 could make it look like our action was a response to the community’s anger. But that wasn’t the case. We took action as soon as we practicably could.
I hate to let an employee go, and I wish the best for Jessica and Peter, as for any former employee, in whatever they choose to do next.
Whatever you thought of the tweets, Jessica and Peter were also part of the team that brought you the kidnapping scene in Episode 1, which was a wonderfully well-executed scene. That’s how I want to remember their time at ArenaNet.
Price said she now regrets boosting ArenaNet as a good place to work. “I looked every female narrative designer on the team in the eye and told her, ‘This place will value you, and will let you be who you are.’ They trusted me, and I led them wrong.
“The wounds from GamerGate had just started to heal in terms of women in the industry starting to relax and trust their employers,” Price added. “The fact that it was a company that touts itself as welcoming to marginalized talent that may have reignited a hate campaign designed to drive marginalized talent out of games is a very painful irony.”
In the wake of her firing, leading developers have come out in support of Price and Fries. On Twitter, Night in the Woods developer Scott Benson called ArenaNet “cowardly pieces of shit who sell out their workers at the drop of a hat.” Some fans have celebrated Fries’ and Price’s departures on Reddit, crowing that they have the power to remove staff whose opinions they dislike.
Deroir denies that his comments to Price were gendered. He tweeted: “In a world where discussions should be encouraged, and not belittled, yet the opposite becomes reality, I’ve apparently found myself in the midst of a war I never intended to partake in.” He added the hashtag #IAmAFeminist.
Price said she has no regrets about her response to Deroir, although she said she might have moderated her language a little. “Given that the term ‘asshat’ was apparently a sticking point for ArenaNet, I’d maybe use ‘condescending jerk’ instead,” she said. “Men pop up in my mentions to tell me how to do my job all the time. They pop up to explain my female colleagues’ own jokes to them.
“Male game devs deal with it too. Gamers don’t seem to believe expertise exists. But it’s not the constant deluge it is for women. Which was the point of the tweets that Peter made that got him fired: He was saying, ‘Hey, this is about gender, because I’m out here talking about the same stuff she’s talking about, and this doesn’t happen to me.’”
Now Price plans to regroup and look at her options, while staying away from social media. “I’m very tired,” she said. “I’m not reading the reactions. What would be the point? I have a security team handling my social media, since I’m under full bot assault. There’s nothing worth reading from bots and strangers on Twitter. If fellow devs want to reach out to me — and they have been, in droves — we have a network of mutual connections through which they can do that.”