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Evolving the way we think about community | Opinion

Abusive influencers show companies need to reconsider who they lend their legitimacy to, and how

"Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

I suspect virtually everyone involved in the games industry or tech sector over the past 20 years could identify the movie that quote is from, but the meaning of the quote seems to be one they've collectively ignored.

How many times have we seen companies living by the precepts of "Move fast and break things" and "Change the world," but never considering what collateral damage could come from quickly breaking the world? In some ways it seems inherent to tech culture, particularly start-ups. If you're rolling the dice on a moonshot disruption anyway, why devote precious time and resources to preparing for the unintended downsides of enormous success?

The past decades have seen numerous new technologies and business models, followed way too late by restrictions that should have been in place from the very start

When YouTube started, the company was more concerned with revolutionizing video online, and demonstrably less concerned with how it would balance the rights of IP holders with those of its content creators, moderate user comments, and ensure its algorithm didn't radicalize users toward harmful philosophies. Problems ensued.

Facebook, Twitter, and any number of social media services have grappled with similar problems, building massive user bases before considering the many ways people would use their sites to manipulate and abuse others. Problems ensued.

More specific to games, the past decades have seen numerous new technologies and business models, followed way too late by common sense restrictions that should have been in place from the very start. In many cases, problems ensued.

Digital distribution storefronts were late to the game permitting refunds on pre-orders when customers had second thoughts. Community-driven online games still launch without reporting mechanisms to curb toxic behavior.

Loot boxes had to become nearly ubiquitous before publishers started releasing so much as a vague idea of the odds players have for getting desired content. As any FIFA Ultimate Team player looking for the rarest cards could attest, there is a universe of wiggle room in a "Less than 1% chance" disclaimer.

And even with such half-hearted odds reporting as the standard, publishers like Activision Blizzard did their best to avoid disclosure of any sort. (I feel like I bring this up in almost every editorial I write, but it's a bad faith action by a massive publisher that completely undermines the industry's credibility, behavior that hurts everyone in the industry and should be dragged around like the Stone of Shame.)

When influencer culture became a thing, the industry was eager to enlist a new generation of Twitch and YouTube stars to tell their impressionable audiences nice things about their games and services without disclosing that they were paid for their endorsement, as if this weren't something that any 10-year-old should be able to spot as a blatantly unethical practice. Instead, the industry needed the Federal Trade Commission to step in and remind them that a paid-for opinion needs to be labelled as such. Again. And again. And again. And again.

Clearly, game companies have understood the power of influencers to build and foster active communities surrounding their games. And that can be great for communities, great for influencers, and great for the companies. But as companies have rushed to harness that power, it seems they haven't really considered their role in amplifying that power, and the ways it can harm the communities they want to grow in the first place.

EA's Game Changers program gives community influencers additional status

EA's Game Changers program gives community influencers additional status

The latest example of this came earlier this month, when Electronic Arts had to apologize for dragging its heels in responding to player reports that one of the personalities in its Sims Game Changers community partnership program used his position to sexually exploit young members of the community. It's not the first time an influencer has been accused of abusive behavior or used their position to prey on members of a game's community.

Kotaku, which deserves credit for its regular reporting on this issue, ran an excellent feature on the subject just last month, in the wake of a World of Warcraft influencer and Hi-Rez Studios employee being arrested as part of a police sting operation targeting sex trafficking of minors.

In these stories and countless others that have surfaced in the industry in recent years, one depressingly common sentiment is that the abused are worried people will take their abusers' sides. In the case of the Sims Game Changer, Kotaku spoke with three victims who said they were afraid to come forward because of their abuser's status in the Game Changer program.

In talking about the World of Warcraft influencer with Kotaku after his arrest, one woman told the site, "I think a lot of us felt it would be pointless to say anything because he had the followers and the partnership and the sponsors and the position."

Another fan, a cosplayer, said, "I've seen so many of my friends speak up on social media about the things he had done to them. They all thought they were alone and were too scared to speak up because of his position in the community."

Those revelations didn't come because an abuser's victims came forward; they came because the person in question was arrested in a police operation entirely unrelated to his role as an influencer and prominent member of the World of Warcraft community. If it weren't for that arrest, would any of those people have felt safe to come forward?

Consider what you can do to ensure the people given power within your community are deserving of it

As for what lessons publishers should take from these incidents, first and foremost, believe your players. Give them channels to report questionable behavior from community figureheads, and act on those reports when you receive them. Make it a priority. Dedicate as many people to the job as required. Give them proper training and authority to take action.

Beyond that, I would encourage publishers and developers alike to strongly consider what sort of community you're building, how fast it can grow, and what you can do to ensure the people given power within that community are deserving of it. Do this from the beginning. Before launch. Before beta. Before anything is playable. Have the community you want to build reflected in the design of the game. Don't wait until you're the next overnight sensation, because by then it's already too late.

Think about Apex Legends, which drew 50 million players in its first month. I use it as an example not because I think there's anything wrong about what Respawn has done with the game -- to the contrary, the ping system is an example of design reflecting one's hopes for the community -- but simply because it shows how little time it can take for a game to develop a truly massive player base. That community is established now, with its own tone, celebrities, and social norms. It will change over time as all communities do, but if Respawn wants to change it in any specific direction, doing that by design is so much harder now at this scale, with this inertia.

As for influencers, be careful about who you partner with. Consider keeping them at arms' length, or hiring them outright. Neither is any guarantee that they will behave appropriately, of course, but it at least avoids giving the legitimacy of your brand and the power of an endorsement to abusers you have not adequately vetted and have minimal control over.

Granted, Dr. Ian Malcolm might suggest that inviting influencers into the party is inviting chaos, that everything that can go wrong will, and that it's best to leave the whole thing alone. But influencers are not dinosaurs (I'm told those would be me and my traditional media colleagues), and in any case, that would be repairing the fence after the velociraptors have left the enclosure.

So instead, let me just implore that everyone in the industry pause regularly to consider the worst-case scenario of your best-case scenario. We know the companies building communities and working with influencers aren't intending to harm anyone, but there's no end of examples of people indirectly causing incredible harm simply because they were too focused on what they could achieve that they didn't think of the negative consequences that success could have on the world around them.

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