Breaking the outrage cycle
Anger and abuse from fan communities have become a routine part of the games industry, but they don't have to be
There's a vicious cycle in the games industry that has been picking up steam in recent years. As with any such cycle, that can make it hard to identify a starting point or a place to lay the blame. But seeing as this is an industry site, let's start with the industry.
For the last decade, the industry has gradually embraced a games-as-a-service approach, where they are no longer selling a discrete entertainment experience but an open-ended service. The business model does not hinge on getting people in the door so much as it depends on keeping them around, giving opportunities over months, years, or potentially even decades for a company to extract money from the userbase.
This is regularly called "a relationship" with a customer. And if we are to judge that relationship the way we might any of our own personal relationships, it is quite commonly an unhealthy one. I don't mean it's unhealthy in that it's purely transactional, where the publisher offers product X in exchange for Y amount of money. I would actually welcome that. It's unhealthy because it's transactional, but not transparent.
Publishers and developers spend a lot of time and money building communities, creating environments that allow superfans to flourish like cultures in a petri dish. They train developers to act as spokespeople and hire spokespeople to be community managers and everything is "for the fans" and all the feedback is listened to and carefully considered with very serious faces by your besties on the dev team. And every now and then, we get wonderful stories about the playerbase coming together to help out a friend in need or couples who met in-game and are now married in real life.
"The players are invested emotionally, yet the company on the other end is only capable of being invested financially. That's a relationship ripe for exploitation"
Of course, for the company running the game, building a community is ultimately a means to an end, a way to maximize profits. If it happens to boost morale on the dev team or make people feel better about their jobs, that's a welcome (but incidental) side effect. But to the players--the ones with those heart-warming stories, the ones who get tattoos, or the ones that plan a cross-country vacation around a fan expo--the game in question is something more than a product; it's a part of their life.
As much as individual developers might love to hear their work has touched someone in that way, it's not an exclusively beneficial thing because it means the relationship has been thrown out of balance. The players are invested emotionally, yet the company on the other end is only capable of being invested financially. And if there's one thing the worst examples of free-to-play have shown, that's a relationship ripe for exploitation.
But the problem isn't limited to virtual aquarium apps that kill kids' fish off and then charge real money to revive them; it's inherent to any business model where the player isn't being told what they're being charged for. That includes DLC Season Passes that launch with vague descriptions of what players will get but always manage to have a very concrete price attached. It includes virtual currencies that psychologically distance players from the idea that they're spending real money and turn value propositions into a math quiz. And it most definitely includes loot boxes where players can pay unlimited amounts of money opening box after box in the hopes of chancing upon the one thing they actually wanted to spend money on. (Maybe it's possible to introduce the specter of gambling into the foundation of a relationship and still have it be a healthy one, but I'm skeptical, to say the least.)
All of these things, from community building to loot boxes, are efforts of obfuscation. They are intentionally seeking to distort players' perceptions of what their relationship with the company is and what factors they can base their purchasing decisions on. Companies pursue these tactics because they can be fabulously profitable, even though they know a certain portion of their player base won't like it.
"This same debacle keeps happening again and again, because this perversely works on some level for all parties involved"
If this were a purely transactional relationship on both sides, that would be the point at which the players simply find another game to play. But because this is gaming and we have the most passionate fans in the world and we're so invested in all the wonderful feedback they give and listening carefully to every bit of it, those communities full of emotionally invested players are now hurt and angry and wanting to fix this thing they were always told was all about them and what they want. So it's not terribly surprising that some of them feel inordinately hurt and betrayed, and that some of them will vent that anger inappropriately, whether it be tweeting rotten things at the dev team, rallying their fellow community members to brigade a game's reviews, or generally attempting to berate the game makers into submission.
And that's where the press comes in. In some cases, the players' grievances are justified. In some others, they are not. But they often get covered just the same. When we in the press cover this backlash without comment, it can be read as a tacit approval of the anger. When we cover the backlash with condemnation, it still risks validating inappropriate behavior, giving that ultra-hostile fraction of a fraction of the community the attention they sought to put pressure on the game's makers. When we ignore the outrage, we risk failing in our obligation to inform our readers of what's actually happening, or turning a blind eye to some of the industry's most deeply entrenched problems that have gone unaddressed for far too long.
The result is this same debacle keeps happening again and again, because this perversely works on some level for all parties involved. Publishers and developers can make money hand over fist by cultivating emotionally invested communities they will almost inevitably run afoul of at some point. Angered players can throw a tantrum in the full knowledge that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. The worst case scenario for them is that things don't change but the publisher or developer releases a statement praising how dedicated and passionate the fans hurling abuse at them really are. At best, they might actually get what they want. And on the press side, we get a bit of traffic, perhaps a spike in those oh-so-vital engagement metrics.
Naturally, it's easier to identify a vicious cycle than it is to break it. But as with so many of these problems, the simplest solution (though maybe not the easiest one) involves everyone contributing to the problem to reflect on their role in it, and do what they can to remove their contribution from the equation.
As a member of the press, that means I need to be more thoughtful about what I cover and how. Things that sound great in theory can fall apart once put into practice, but for the moment at least I believe that means ensuring that stories are not centered around backlash. The news isn't "Gamers angry about Destiny 2 shader changes" so much as it is "Destiny 2 changes shaders to consumables." The accompanying Reddit thread is probably not news. Anonymous commenters saying outrageous things are not news. They do not get coverage. I will not give them a megaphone just so internet rubberneckers have something horrible to gawk at.
If I center the story around the thing that has upset people and it doesn't feel newsworthy (and in the Destiny 2 shader case for a trade site like GamesIndustry.biz, it's not), then I don't write the story. That's not a promise to avoid covering ugly outbursts from the fan community entirely, but to apply a much more stringent set of criteria to them. It's an attempt to ensure that I am reporting on them because there is something newsworthy there, not because they're ghoulishly interesting. It's an invitation for you to call me on it the next time my byline appears on such a story, to ask how I came to the conclusion that this outrage deserved coverage.
I can't speak for all games journalists. I can't even speak for everyone at GamesIndustry.biz. But the minuscule slice of the gaming world that appears directly under my byline is the slice I have control over, and I desperately want it to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
I won't pretend my course of action here is The Right One. I won't even pretend it's going to be a particularly effective one, but I won't resign myself to perpetuating the problem and making it harder for the next person with a better idea to come along and break the cycle. However futile the effort may be, I want my net impact here to be a positive one. I would encourage you to consider what slice of the industry you have control over, no matter how small, and what you want your net impact to be.