Jessica Price Shouldn’t Have Been Fired

That’s the single, blindingly obvious conclusion I came to after reading the way in which Price, a game producer and writer for Guild Wars 2, was fired by her employer ArenaNet for some tweets in which they claimed she “attacked the community”. Peter Fries, a fellow writer, was also fired for defending her. Price had been at the company for around a year, Fries for more than twelve years.

Rather than recapitulating the whole story, I’d suggest reading the short but comprehensive Rock Paper Shotgun piece. If you’re curious, you can find more from The Verge and Eurogamer.

When I first read the articles, I was baffled. The two tweets they all cited were:

I kept looking for the other tweets that included these supposed “attacks” on the community. Surely there had to be something worse than “asshat”? Surely Price must have said something really bad, like “I hate every single one of our shithead players and I hope they never play our game again”?

But no, apparently “asshat” was outrageous enough to give the vapours to parts of the gaming community, whom we all know abhor all use of curse words.

She shouldn’t have been fired.

It Began in Madness, Just as It Ended

Price had written a long series of tweets going into some detail about the difficulties of getting players to identify with their characters in Guild Wars 2’s story. Deroir, a player and YouTuber, replied with a suggestion akin to telling a Formula One mechanic to maybe try putting better gas in the tank. She said “thanks for trying to tell me what we do internally, my dude,” which Deroir interpreted as her “getting mad”.

This is not Price getting mad. It’s a brusque brushoff, but not one that’s unwarranted.

Several years ago, I was at a conference party hoping to speak with a senior exec at Pixar. There was already a group of people talking to him, and at one point in the conversation, I jumped in by questioning something he’d said, about the relative release dates of their early movies. Not only was it an inappropriate interjection, but I was wrong (forgive me, I was only 20).

The exec paused. Turned to me. Rolled his eyes. “Excuse me, I think I know when our own films were released, thank you,” he said, and then turned away. He was not mad at me. It was a brushoff, just like the one Price delivered. It wasn’t even rude.

Deroir thinks Price is getting mad at her. Nothing could be further from the truth. Price didn’t give Deroir the attention he felt he deserved, and so he got mad.

As for me, I was stung and my pride was hurt – but not so much that I wanted him to be fired, not even if, hypothetically, he’d later said, “I’m tired of rando asshats trying to tell me when our films were released, as if I hadn’t been working in Pixar for a decade. I’m just not going to talk to them any more”. In fact, a few years later I caught up with him and got a tour of their offices.

A Selection of Ignorant and Bad Faith Questions from the “Gaming Community”

Q: Isn’t this like firing a waitress for being rude towards customers?

No, because:

  • Price’s job isn’t serving the public, and it’s not what she should be judged on primarily.
  • Price wasn’t even on the job when tweeting.
    • “But she has her company name in her Twitter profile!” Oh my god, that changes everything, doesn’t it? Because if she didn’t have her company name in her profile, she shouldn’t be fired?
  • Only in the US do waitresses get instantly fired for being rude to customers. The notion this should be copied by the international gaming industry highlights the disturbingly authoritarian and servile nature of parts of the gaming community.

Q: Price is the one being sexist!

It is admittedly impossible to know whether any single instance of mansplaining is down to sexism or just because someone is naturally a bore, any more than you can really ‘know’ that Sony hates the idea of cross-platform gaming or maybe it’s just somehow mysteriously really difficult to make Fortnite work between PS4s and Nintendo Switches.

But in both cases, we’re observing a pattern of behaviour as a woman, or as a PS4 gamer. After we’ve heard Sony tell us a dozen times why it’s impossible for PS4 owners of game to play with others on the Xbox or PC – even as the rest of the games industry has accomplished this with ease – one can reasonably conclude Sony’s overall corporate strategy is to prevent cross-platform play.

Likewise, even as an individual woman, after you have encountered mansplaining for hundredth or thousandth time – after you have seen your male colleagues not being afflicted to the same degree – you can reasonably conclude: no, it’s not just you, it’s not that you’re unlucky, it’s that the world in general is sexist, just as Price does in this case.

I suppose I have a tiny smidgeon of sympathy for Deroir being the straw that broke Price’s back. Maybe there are others who deserved it more. But hey, we’ll all forget about this in a few week’s time and Deroir will move on to other things, while Price was fired and no doubt lost thousands of dollars.

It’s a very, very tiny smidgeon.

Q: Deroir is an important Arenanet Partner, Price is damaging Arenanet’s business with her tweet!

OK, so it’s as if some artist at Marvel Studios snapped at Robert Downey Jr., a person arguably critical to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, right? Because we’re acting as if an “Arenanet Partner” is an especially unique and prestigious position to attain, rather than being one of more than a hundred bloggers and streamers that anyone can apply to join.

Deroir has around 2000 Twitter followers and 8000 YouTube subscribers – and this is after all of the fuss, which has no doubt inflated his follower count. This puts him solidly in the middle of the Arenanet Partner pack, which I don’t think any employee at the company, other than those in social media, could possibly be expected to memorise. This is not to belittle his importance, it’s to put things into perspective.

Q: Price doesn’t need to be on Twitter – if she can’t take the heat, she should stay out of the kitchen!

Some people online expect game designers, writers, politicians – basically, anyone with more than a modest following – to be unfailingly polite in their interactions with the community, while having zero expectations of reciprocity from community members. In other words, ‘public figures’ are meant to soak up unbelievable amounts of abuse with total grace.

This is wrong. Conferences, conventions, and forums all have codes of conduct. Large public organisations like the NHS and Transport for London make it very clear that while they expect their staff to be polite, they will not tolerate the abuse of their staff. This is in stark contrast to many games companies, who tacitly encourage this abuse by tolerating it and in this case, firing two employees.

If Arenanet are unhappy with how Price spoke on Twitter, they should also be concerned about their employees’ welfare on Twitter – and they obviously aren’t.

Separately, it’s very useful for people in the game industry to be on Twitter. It helps you find new jobs, get invited to conferences, and learn from colleagues. Not everyone has to do it, but you can also achieve positive things, like give advice to people new in the industry. Price’s now-forgotten Twitter thread that kicked all of this off demonstrates her genuine thoughtfulness towards her job, the Guild Wars 2 community, and to the whole industry. It’s clearer and better written than what most game designers can accomplish.

It’s not an attack on the community. It shows her love for the community.

Q: What about Free Speech? People should be able to say what they like and not get fired!

lol jk, literally no-one said this.

Who We’re Responsible To, as People Who Run Games Companies 

I run a games company. It’s much smaller than Arenanet but we still have hundreds of thousands of active players. It’s not an easy job because you have a lot of different people to answer to.

There are the shareholders and owners of the company. You have to make sure their interests are represented and that you don’t flush all their money down the toilet. Then there’s your customers. You have to take care of them, otherwise they might turn to your competition.

And there’s your employees, the people who do the work that makes you money and produces your games. It is a sad reality of late-stage capitalism that many company owners treat employees as interchangeable, because from the perspective of a spreadsheet, they essentially are. But from a human perspective, they most certainly are not.

I would never fire an employee if they had done what Jessica Price did. I might have a word with them, especially if it kept happening. But I’d also make sure they weren’t being constantly attacked on Twitter. I hope that most CEOs would do the same.

The thing is, you shouldn’t have to hope. My employees don’t have to worry about this because they live in the UK. Arenanet is based in Washington, an “at will” employment state where employers can terminate employment without providing a reason, at any time. In the UK, employees have much stronger rights, whether or not they’re in a union.

I support my friends and colleagues in the US who are fighting for better employment law and unions.

I encourage other owners of games companies to remember who they’re responsible for – not just shareholders, not just customers, but their employees.

And once more: Jessica Price shouldn’t have been fired.

Reassessing Persuasive Games

 

Sadly, I’ve always thought persuasive/serious games were more about generating good PR than actually persuading anyone – at least from the funders’ perspective, who were usually charities and non-profits. I say that as someone who (IMO) made some pretty good “serious games”. The wildly overblown claims from certain corners that “games will save the world” and inflated engagement statistics also didn’t help in the long term.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot for a potential book, and part of the problem is tied up into something I call the “mapping problem”, in which it’s very challenging to design a game to ‘solve’ specific kinds of problems – especially ones that we don’t fully understand – whereas gamification proponents have always claimed a one-size-fits-all solution.

(And for the millionth time, I dearly wish we could go back to blogging. Trying to read longform text via Twitter screenshots is just awful)

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery forces you to pay – or wait – to save a kid from being strangled by Tom Phillips:

You have a finite bar of energy you can hold at one time, and when this is depleted you’ll need to pay up or just wait it out and keep checking back before time runs out. You regain one energy point every four minutes, and there’s no way to regain energy for free doing another activity. The only challenge involved is remembering the game’s clock is still ticking away while you’re doing other things, so you can then return in half an hour to finish what should have been a two minute experience.

The first time the game engineers you will run out of energy is in its first action scene, where – creepily – your character is left in a life or death scenario while you wait half an hour to continue. Charitably you could say this energy system adds a certain cliffhanger-esque nature to Hogwarts Mystery – but the amount of energy needed is a completely arbitrary number, and one deliberately designed to fully deplete your energy bar. The game encourages you to make a purchase and continue immediately rather than wait and leave your avatar suffering. It is especially troubling when you consider the game’s audience.

Too Far From Noise

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As a ‘story game’ aficionado, I was hoping to like the well-reviewed and App Store-featured Far From Noise. It is very pretty and it touches on themes like depression and anxiety and despair that are not typically covered in pretty games.

Sadly, I found the game overlong and repetitive. Believe me, it’s not that I don’t understand magic realism or that I need constant action and input, but rather that it is superficial, poorly written, and mistakes childhood anecdotes with character development. It isn’t Philosophy 101 – it’s Philosophy 001.

I don’t find it especially interesting or satisfying to dunk on Far From Noise, given the evident heart poured into the game by its creator. I’m more interested in exploring why it was so well-received by the games press, but I’m also wondering how I can do that without coming across as an enormous asshole who thinks he understands philosophy and games more than anyone else – and believe me, I don’t.

So I’ll try it this way: if you want to read or watch a tale about depression and despair, there are plenty out there for every kind of taste. But if you want an interactive experience that isn’t a text adventure, there are slim pickings indeed, so when a pretty game comes along that references Thoreau and Emerson, it’s praised despite its considerable shortcomings, so as not to discourage others. And given that the games industry exists in a continual state of half-imagined, half-imposed inferiority to ‘higher’ art forms, it’s not surprising that people celebrate the few games that tackle more serious subjects, especially if those games have nice graphics and are bug-free.

The generosity of games reviewers towards Far From Noise doesn’t necessarily stem from ignorance or naivety or insincerety, but rather from their desire to grade on a curve – to judge it solely against other games instead of other media. Perhaps you think that’s appropriate, but I think it holds games back. It makes it difficult to distinguish truly great and beautiful games like Kentucky Route Zero from mediocre games like this one.

We should not be ashamed of expecting better.

Ninja’s Fortnite tournament, a fascinating mix of streaming, participation, $75 paid entry, and prizes ($2500 if you kill him, $2500 if you win a game), reminds me of what broadcasters like the BBC were trying to do in the 2000s. Back then, the tech and logistics for ‘massive’ games was too expensive, but it’s finally here now.

Brutal: CCP pulled out of VR game development because the reception was “even below our lowest expectations.”

I’m still long-term bullish on VR, but it seems like there are several big problems to solve, one of them being the friction of just starting a game, something echoed in the interview: “The ceremony of putting on a VR headset; I often liken it to putting on scuba gear to go diving. Scuba diving is an amazing experience, but it’s a lot of gear to put on, and when you have it on it’s isolating, disorienting.”

Playing Press at Watch The Skies Megagame

I hadn’t anticipated becoming Chief Reporter for the Global News Network after signing up to play the Watch The Skies Megagame last week. Maybe I’d be the Chief Scientist for France, or perhaps the Chinese Premier, helping directing essential climate change research with the world’s leading scientists, or high-stakes diplomacy with India and America.

Instead, I was dashing around a hall frantically writing quotes into Google Docs on my iPhone before a deadline that came every 40 minutes. It was like that first episode of Battlestar Galactica, but with an even shakier camera.

Excuse me, Foreign Minister, I’m Adrian Hon from GNN Press – can I get a comment on the outbreak in Belize? I’m sure our readers would like to know what kind of assistance the Chinese government will be providing. Yes, I’m aware this isn’t the kind of information you give out to anyone, but between you and me, I’ve got 11 million in commitments from three different countries. If you give me a hint… well, you could have a head-start in the next UN negotiations.

If you put a Model United Nations conference into a blender with War of the Worlds, you’d get Watch The Skies, a six hour megagame in which 40 people take control of eight nations, one news organisation, and one mysterious alien race. In our ‘Lite’ version of the game, each nation had four players: the Head of State, Chief of Defence, Chief Scientist, and Foreign Minister, each with their own unique abilities and responsibilities.

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While there’s a map with tanks and fighter jets, and there’s money and counters and cards, Watch The Skies really is more like Model UN than Risk: to achieve your objectives, you need effective diplomacy, not battle tactics and dice rolls.

There are plenty of other megagames. One is set in feudal Japan; another sees you battling a zombie outbreak. There’s even The World Turned Upside Down, about the American Revolution. There are genuine differences between megagames, but they all have the same delicate balance of roleplay, diplomacy, and utter panic.

Panic, because there’s literally no way for any individual player or even team to fully comprehend what’s really going on in the game. Sure, you’re in secret talks with the aliens and you’re plotting with Brazil and the UK to vote down France’s bid to chair the next scientific conference – but there’s no way you could know that America and China are about to move their fleets across the Pacific to capture a downed alien ship in Australia, or that Brazil is badmouthing you to all and sundry in the hopes of toppling your government.

Not unless you read the fearless, globe-trotting in-game news service, GNN, of course.

lol, jk – we didn’t know about any of it either! Continue reading “Playing Press at Watch The Skies Megagame”