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Dealing with online hate: A crisis management handbook for video game developers

TinyBuild's Alex Nichiporchik gives pointers to maintain positive relations between devs and their communities

Games are an inherently passionate medium. For many creators, the very point of video games is to make their audience as emotionally engaged in the action as possible. It’s not the character on-screen saving the world, it’s you.

Every tragedy, betrayal and victory is meant to be felt from your own perspective. It’s meant to be a personal experience. It’s shared passion, passed on from creators to their audience. Everyone is deeply invested.

This passion and emotional investment can be a double-edged sword. It’s the job of developers and (ideally) specialized community managers to spot these cases and help restore winsome engagement.

Anything from a misunderstood set of patch notes to an awkwardly phrased community address can spark a strong reaction. One developer’s bad day can turn into a headache for dozens or hundreds. It's easy for emotions to run high for both players and creators in these situations.

Even if it feels like everything is escalating out of control, hasty responses only add fuel to the fire, and add to your own anxiety

Having survived online communities since the ‘wild west’ days of the internet (the early 2000s were a chaotic time) and also undergone extensive conflict management and communication training, I’ve developed several strategies to help re-establish communication when developers and fans aren’t seeing eye-to-eye.

Slow down

While it is tempting to act fast, it is much better to take a step back, a deep breath and to draw up a plan before reacting. Fighting against those reflexive reactions isn’t easy, but many situations involving critique are not for developers to step into. At least not immediately.

Even if it feels like the world is crumbling around you and everything is escalating out of control, hasty responses only add fuel to the fire, and add to your own anxiety. So remember to observe and consider first.

Get to the root

Making sure you’ve identified the origin of the community frustration is key. What fans want to see is understanding from you as to their concerns, and to understand why you made the decisions you have.

But if the source of the tension are trolls just itching to pick a fight or antagonize, then they will only feed off the attention and sap your energy further.

What you should do:

- Take some time to rein in your own emotions. De-escalation is tough work, and communication is going to fall apart quickly if both sides are spoiling for a fight. Prepare yourself to deal with what might look like defeat, because happy people tend not to say much. For every clearly positive result you’ll see managing your community, there could be 30 unhappy comments. It does not mean you’ve failed. It means you’ve built a deeply passionate audience for your game, and those complaints are well worth thinking over, they may contain useful feedback.

- Assess which concerns you can readily address, what doesn’t have a clear solution, and what needs further investigation. Often there will be a clear root cause for dissatisfaction that you can talk about, other times you’ll need to dig deeper.

- Beware of the trolls trying to get a rise out of you. Trolls win if you end up in a pointless, circular game of whack-a-mole with them, while truly concerned fans lose out because you’re devoting your time and energy in the wrong places.

Trolls win if you end up in a pointless, circular game of whack-a-mole with them

- Seek a second opinion, or just talk one-on-one with community members if you don’t fully understand what people are upset about. There may be regional, cultural or generational issues at play. People are complex, times are always changing and communication is seldom perfect.

- Honesty goes a long way, too. If there has been a mistake made on your company’s part, admit it. If unavoidable hard calls had to be made, explain why they’ve been made, provide context, and focus on re-establishing communication.

- Plan your messaging ahead of time, and keep it concise. Rushing into a raging argument and trying to respond to everyone involved is a recipe for disaster. When it comes to communicating with the general public, less is more, and the longer and more wooly any public statement is, the more room there is for misinterpretation and having your words turned against you.

- Control the narrative and communication spaces. Once you’ve figured out what your message to the audience will be, decide how best to deploy it. If it’s a localized upset on just a single forum or platform, you may be alright just making the statement there. If the issue is more widespread (and especially if press attention seems likely), publish it on your main website and/or social media channels.

- Temporarily extend your community team. If the crisis is more than one person can handle, bring in extra manpower to handle community management in shifts. This work can be extremely exhausting if the situation is especially volatile.

What you shouldn't do:

- Don’t forget that everyone involved is human, so conveying your hopes and feelings in your statement is as important as being concise and clear. A completely robotic statement that reads like it was factory-assembled is more likely to annoy people than defuse a complex situation.

- Don’t talk down to your audience, and don’t dismiss their feelings. This can be especially tricky to do if you’re sure that you’re in the right, all it takes is for a message to be misinterpreted as passive-aggressive to cause a situation to spiral wildly out of control.

- Don’t let anyone from the studio post anything until they’ve been fully briefed on official messaging, and had at least a few posts peer-reviewed. If you must escalate the size of the crew working on community management, then it must work as a coherent team. A single tired and frustrated developer reacting in haste can undo many hours of positive de-escalation.

Preparation is key

The above guidelines should help see you through most common flare-ups, especially on external sites and social networks. But not every situation has something that you can communicate politely and still keep everyone on board with, especially within your own spaces. Sometimes you’ll be facing a situation that requires direct intervention, deleting forum threads or banning individuals.

One of the most important things a developer can do is to make it absolutely clear that there will be zero tolerance for bigotry, personal abuse, and to actively, visibly enforce those rules

Dealing with these situations is extremely challenging work, and sometimes requires decisive action. There are very few winning outcomes, just reducing the damage done. The real work to prevent such scenarios is with clear community guidelines, rules and moderation done well before anything can turn sour.

One of the most important things a developer or publisher can do when establishing a forum or Discord community is to make it absolutely clear that there will be zero tolerance for bigotry, personal abuse, and to actively, visibly enforce those rules.

Moderation must be active

What looks like a few vaguely edgy memes posted in a Discord side-channel can easily build into something that draws in more unsavory characters while driving out your most socially aware fans. Set clear boundaries and communicate the rules. If asked why you’ve deleted a message, make a small public statement within the community reiterating the rules, and reassure other users that there are people actively moderating things.

Your active goal is to create a safe space where fans can talk about your game. It’s one thing for a player to angrily vent over a favorite weapon being nerfed. There should be zero tolerance for that anger to take the form of genuinely hateful abuse directed at other community members, staff or anyone else.

Build it before you need it

Crisis management is an important skill, and something to prepare for. But a well managed community is far more likely to react to annoyance with mild grumbling, rather than reaching for the pitchforks and torches. When the chips are down, it’s the quiet but friendly community members that will help de-escalate things for you. Careless moderation can easily drive those people away.

And as always, listen to your audience. Their feelings and thoughts are always important, before, during or after an incident.

Alex Nichiporchik is the founder and CEO of TinyBuild, a Seattle-based publisher known for Hello Neighbor, Potion Craft, and over 40 titles.