Director of global community relations Linda Carlson on the ambiguous power of the online audience
The customer is always right. This familiar maxim is one of the founding stones for providing good service, a day-one business lesson for anybody serving as a contact point for the public. It is also completely misleading, forsaking all nuance to preserve its own neat, quotable form. Nobody, on either side of a transaction, is always right. There is always a line.
This is more true in video games than any other entertainment industry. Gamers are more than just passive consumers. They are active participants, engaging with the product in a way that literature, television, film and music cannot possibly replicate. The act of playing a game is, by its very nature, a dialogue, and as the industry pushes further and further towards a service structure for the bulk of its products, understanding and marshalling that dialogue will be as essential as good design.
For Linda Carlson, director of global community relations at Sony online Entertainment (SOE), the evolution of that process is more than just customer service – it is “an area of study.” The regular users of games like EverQuest, PlanetSide and DC Universe Online are more than just players; they are inhabitants, residents of virtual societies they have jointly helped to create. That sort of dedication can be inspiring, but the sense of entitlement it engenders can also manifest in unpleasant ways – in the trolls and bullies that blight online communities – and the industry is only now beginning to understand its potency.
“You can never win an argument on the internet. Someone is always willing to go further than you will”
Carlson’s talk at this year’s GDC Europe was one of the more enlightening hours in a two-day schedule crammed with them – a pragmatic, unflinching guide to the demands posed by the increasingly populous and vociferous world of online gamers. Carlson is careful to emphasise the generosity and commitment displayed by these communities – and she should know, having met her husband while playing EverQuest – but the prevention and punishment of bad behaviour remains one of the key responsibilities in a job that grows more challenging all the time.
“When I first started playing in 1999, it was the most extraordinarily, overtly sexist environment ever,” she says when we meet after her talk. “That’s one of the reasons I started playing as a male dwarf. I made a female wood-elf, and it was, ‘Hey baby, nice rack!’ So I made a female human – not as attractive – and it was still just people wanting to cyber. I finally went for a male dwarf, because nobody wants to touch that.
“I’d been a strong supporting member of the community… I was one of those veterans that liked to help out, though I typically avoided forums as much as I could. They were really a cesspool at that time, and I didn’t feel comfortable posting there – they’re moderated much more carefully now.”
And Carlson is at the head of a team dedicated to ensuring that happens. Not all of them were plucked directly from the SOE community, as Carlson was, but they are all lifelong gamers – a vital quality that affords insight into the values and motivations of those they monitor, encourage and protect. Indeed, in terms of relevant work experience, community relations may be one of the most accessible fields in the games industry. Among Carlson’s most skilled and intuitive employees are former teachers and bartenders; both jobs that demand no small amount of patience, and the ability to empathise with superficially unreasonable points-of-view.
“When I first started playing in 1999, it was the most overtly sexist environment ever. That’s one of the reasons I started playing as a male dwarf”
“You could implement a small change that maybe only affects a few thousand people, but for them it’s huge,” she says. “They can’t believe that you’ve just done this, and that you’ve done it to them personally. Because you hate them, and you don’t want their money, and you don’t value the five years they spent playing your game.
“It’s all a matter of perspective. The size of the problem changes depending on who you are, so you have to take all of these views seriously, even if you can’t change something [back].”
According to Carlson, taking the needs and opinions of the entire audience seriously is perhaps the single most important aspect of her role, and it can pay off in a number of ways. The most dangerous assumption one can make about the community is that the disruptive, bellicose minority are representative of the whole. They aren’t, and one shouldn’t underestimate just how much of a minority problematic figures really are. “99.5 per cent plus of the player base are tremendous individuals,” Carlson says. “They provide a working social world that they have helped to create on their own.”
Rather than simply being players and payers, the most engaged figures in any given community can also be a tremendous asset to the studio. They can serve as a rapid, accurate reference tool for a game’s lore and social history, or provide expert insights on new design ideas that even long-standing members of the development team would struggle to provide. No matter what aspect of the game, no matter how niche, it is never wise to underestimate the wisdom of the player-base. There will always be someone who has been there longer, and who cares more than anybody. According to Carlson, the proliferation of this more open philosophy has been one of the key changes in SOE in her five years with the company.
“Players want recognition, respect and response,” she says. “The best players, the ones that provide the most thoughtful feedback and useful information, are rewarded constantly because they get direct interaction from the dev team or the community team. It makes them feel valued, and it shows other people how to act.”
And it attracts more people to the game. Community management is typically viewed as a way of retaining players, but the spread of accessible, instant communication through social media has also made it a vital sales tool. Good news travels faster than ever before, and positive opinions are an increasingly valuable currency when promoting games. “We are absolutely a service industry,” Carlson says, “and you’re only as good as your last contact with the customer.”
“If we know who you are and you’re abusing somebody on Twitter, we will ban your game account and we won’t accept you as a customer ever again”
But if good news travels fast, bad news will always be several steps ahead, and when players are so deeply involved passions frequently run high. Ultimately, while the vast majority are well-intentioned and productive, that disruptive 0.05 per cent can have a profound impact on the community, and unravel months of good work with a few malicious words or actions. Carlson believes that each game should have individually tailored standards: shooters are inherently competitive, for example, and therefore shouldn’t demand the same behaviour from their players as more collaborative genres. But there should always be standards: clearly stated and rigorously enforced from the outset, both within the game and outside of its confines, regardless of a player’s status or popularity.
“Not only will we ban your forum account, but if it’s serious enough we’ll call up customer service and have you banned from all of our games. We do not need those individuals as customers,” Carlson says of the most offensive and anti-social players. “A very influential player, high up in a huge guild – we’ll still ban them… In our games, if you are an exploiter we don’t care who you are, how big your guild is, how many people you threaten to take with you when you go.
“We can control anybody who’s playing our games…[but] if we know who you are and you’re abusing somebody on Twitter, we will ban your game account and we will not accept you as a customer ever again. It’s not always possible to identify people [in that way], but we take that seriously.”
For the most part, Carlson says, those who transgress to such a severe degree – death threats, sustained abuse, bullying, etc. – tend to have an escalating history of similar behaviour. Indeed, SOE’s grievance procedures and punitive measures are designed with this in mind. It is extremely rare, if not entirely unheard of, for a player to move from one extreme to another in an isolated event.
One complicating factor Carlson mentions is the way individuals change in groups; this is often a positive force – online games are defined by the contributions of guilds and clans – but the echo-chamber effect of group dynamics can just as easily reinforce and justify negative behaviour. Witnessing this on a regular basis – as anyone working with the community must – can be difficult to process, but it exposes an uncomfortable truth about human nature that, if embraced, makes the difficulty of the task that much easier to bear.
“I think developers need to understand human nature. They need to understand that this is normal. It’s not just you – it’s everybody”
And the examples of people who have found the intensity of abuse in online communities too difficult are not hard to find. For a recent but by no means isolated example, one need only look to the abrupt retirement of Phil Fish, the outspoken developer of Fez. Research around the impact of social media and instantaneous mass communication on behaviour is still in its infancy, but the studies that do exist tend towards the negative. Shielded by the anonymity of the internet, influenced by the unprecedented access to the opinions of others, sociological principles like Availability Cascade and Bandwagon Effect have become a common feature of our interactions online. To some extent, we are all different, more direct people online.
Fish didn’t quit because of a single, admittedly unprofessional rant, but due to a sustained period of what he saw as unwarranted criticism – most likely from people who would never state their opinions so boldly in the world of face-to-face conversation. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Blogger; the reach these platforms give independent developers offer a tantalising glimpse into a self-sufficient future, but it also brings them face-to-face with what Carlson sees as human nature.
“I don’t believe anybody needs to put up with that stuff,” she says. “You cannot deal with it online because there are no repercussions for that sort of bad behaviour.
“I think what developers do need to do is understand human nature. They need to understand that this is normal. You may not like it, but knowing that is normal will help you deal with it. It’s not just you – it’s everybody, and, yes, they are jerks, but that’s normal.
“I don’t necessarily like humanity, or the fact that human nature so often trends towards the negative – just because that’s how we’re wired – but understanding that makes this whole field of study very fascinating to me, and I do consider community management to be a field of study. It’s constantly changing, because our online communities are changing.”