Rumour Has It: When Chinese Whispers Become Damaging
The dangers of reporting rumours as fact and fighting fires once gossip gets out of control
The games industry is never without rumours. What game might be announced at the next big show, what sort of tech the next generation is using, what really happened at 2am at that bar in E3.
At best they're a bit of fun and all part of the hyping of a new product, but at worst, as Sports Interactive's Miles Jacobson told us, they're damaging to businesses and livelihoods.
"False rumours lead to problems at a staff, customer and perception level," he told GamesIndustry International.
"Internally, if you see a story that your company is going to be shut down, you're obviously going to worry as, well, there's rent to pay, there's food to buy, there's kids to feed. This causes morale issues unless tackled very quickly and sometimes there are hoops that you have to go through before you can say anything, as information may be sensitive, particularly when at a stock market listed company."
"Rumours tend to stick around, even when they are denied"
Jacobson recently got first hand experience when chatter about Sega's recent restructuring were interpreted as news that all Sega Europe operations were closing, including his studio Sports Interactive. In fact, the Football Manager studio is hiring and is one of the new focuses of Sega Europe's plans.
"The amount of tweets I got after the 'Sega Europe shutting down' false rumour was staggering, and that's what lead me to post a public denial, especially as most of the Sega team were on a plane on their way to E3 at the time so weren't around to deny it themselves," he explained.
"These rumours also tend to stick around, even when they are denied. People often believe that there is no smoke without fire, but working across both the football and games sector I have long lost count of the amount of things that get completely made up before being spread round as Chinese whispers which people then start to believe is fact."
He said that while the problems caused by these sorts of rumours can be fixed, the process takes time, something that no developer ever has an excess of. The immediacy of social media can help, and Jacobson did use Twitter to combat the Sega Europe rumours, but only if the response comes from a real person, rather than just a company.
He also questioned the worth of official legal action.
"There are already legal systems in place for people spreading lies around the internet, but I'm not sure how much good it does. If a corporation decides to sue someone they tend to get a lot of negative press. So you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't."
Jas Purewal, Gamer/Law industry legal expert, had his own suggestions for the appropriate action to take starting with asking the site to take it down. Often though this won't be enough, in which case he also suggests social media as a solution.
"Engage with the issue and use all available communication channels - including the sites that published the rumour originally - to communicate clearly your side of the story," he suggested.
"It's important to act fast and be honest at this stage, as well as to explain what is being done to correct the position if the rumour is true. If possible, call upon a PR professional to help structure and communicate your response. Going dark is rarely the answer though, because it leaves people to draw their own conclusions."
He also made clear exactly what the rules are from the media perspective.
"Publishing a potentially damaging rumour about someone else without checking the facts could open you up to a legal claim for defamation by anyone discussed in that rumour."
"Key factors include whether the statement is actually and verifiably true and whether the site took responsible steps to check this, or at least to report the statement responsibly, for example, by making it clear the statement is a rumour, by adding some judgement as to the strength of the rumour and by giving the subject a chance to respond."
"Going dark is rarely the answer, it leaves people to draw their own conclusions"
Jas Purewal, Gamerlaw
"It's no defence to simply report a rumour that another site has already reported on."
It seems unlikely that the industry, and its followers' taste for rumour is going to diminish anytime soon. Jacobson's theory is that the secretive, corporation led nature of games could be part of the reason why.
"I think it's partly because as an entertainment industry we're more corporation based than people based. You don't see Hello or OK magazine speculating on what Peter Molyneux has had for breakfast, or taking photo's of Cliffy B without make up on."
"Corporations tend to be more secretive about things than people. So bands will talk about their new album without their labels blessing, actors will talk about films they're going to be in in 2-3 years time. With games it's a more rigid system for releasing information, but the hardcore fans are just as rabid for info."
If Jacobson is right then rumours will be around as long as there are fans with Twitter accounts, but the way to fight them is by being more open, and more personal, as an industry. At least until we get that photo of Cliffy B without his blusher.