Price, Deroir, and Perception

Today in being a female game dev:

“Allow me–a person who does not work with you–explain to you how you do your job.”

Jessica Price, tweeting as @Delafina777

Recently, a controversy rocked one of the gaming communities I frequent. Jessica Price, a writer for Guild Wars 2, and Deroir, a Guild Wars 2 streamer and ArenaNet partner, had a disagreement. This escalated to a flame war and resulted in the dismissal of Price and one other ArenaNet employee from the company.

I have some thoughts about this.

Who is Jessica Price?

Price was a narrative designer at ArenaNet working on Guild Wars 2. Testimonials from her LinkedIn profile, dating back to 2011, describe her as “hard working, efficient, self-motivated, proactive and artistically talented.” Notably, John Sutherland of Wargaming Seattle commented: “You might think that talent like that would come with a high-maintenance personality, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Jessica is also one of the most down-to-earth, level-headed purveyors of common sense I’ve ever worked with.”

Despite this glowing praise, Price has been a controversial figure in gaming. She mysteriously left Paizo Publishing, her employer before ArenaNet, and followed it up with scathing remarks accusing her former employer of sexism. She also has a history of being blunt and vocal on social media, with a disclaimer on her Twitter reading: “Salty language. I block often. I won’t play demure for you.” In a disagreement with Inks, another gaming personality, Price wrote: “Sure, dude. Now get out of my fucking feed with your assumptions and your entitlement to my time.” When popular YouTuber TotalBiscuit passed, she wrote: “The kindest thing I can say is I’m glad he’s no longer around to keep doing harm.”

Who is Deroir?

Deroir is a long-time content creator in the Guild Wars 2 community. An ArenaNet partner, he maintains a long-running YouTube channel and Twitch stream dedicated to Guild Wars 2. His contributions have been so remarkable that ArenaNet named an in-game NPC after him — one of only 17 such NPCs.

It’s clear that Deroir was a huge fan of the game and its developers. After a Reddit question-and-answer with the Guild Wars 2 developers, just days before the incident, Deroir expressed on his stream that he “loved Jessica Price’s responses” and was impressed by her professional, in-depth explanations of her work.

What happened?

On the 3rd of July, Price started a thread on her personal Twitter about Guild Wars 2 and MMORPG writing. She wrote a short essay about the difficulty of assigning a personality to the player character in an MMO.

This was when Deroir chimed in. He acknowledged that Price’s essay was “insightful” and a “really interesting thread to read!” However, he disagreed with Price, and suggested that branching dialogue could also be used to characterize the player character.

Price responded, “thanks for trying to tell me what we do internally, my dude 9_9”.

Deroir, realizing he’d offended Price, was disheartened by her response. He responded that it had only been an attempt at “creating dialogue and discussion.” Nonetheless, he backpedaled and apologized.

Price pressed the issue. She retweeted Deroir’s response with the added commentary: “Today in being a female game dev: ‘Allow me–a person who does not work with you–explain to you how you do your job.’ “

This response incited a Twitter argument, with supporters of both sides jumping into the fray. Price’s supporters argued that Deroir had sounded condescending and his feedback had been unwarranted. On the flip side, Deroir’s supporters argued that Price’s reaction had been unjustified and an unfair accusation of misogyny.

Deroir chose to stop responding to Price entirely. He commented: “So much for an open discussion I guess. I meant no disrespect AT ALL. Never did. Never will. Neither did I imply I knew better. Nor has this ANYTHING to do with gender. Never did. Never will.”

Price would fan the flames further. She spoke out vehemently against Deroir and his supporters: “like, the next rando asshat who attempts to explain the concept of branching dialogue to me–as if, you know, having worked in game narrative for a fucking DECADE, I have never heard of it–is getting instablocked. PSA.”

She made good on this threat by blocking many other Twitter users who disagreed with her, including another Guild Wars 2 YouTuber, Noxxi (who made a hilarious video in response).

Peter Fries — a co-worker and 13-year veteran of the company — decided at this point to defend her. He tweeted: “Here’s a bit of insight that I legitimately hope he reflects on: she never asked for his feedback.” In another tweet, he elaborated: “These are our *private* social media accounts—imagine you’re an astronomer and you start sharing some things you’ve learned in the last few months since you began a research project observing Saturn, only to have observation techniques explained to you by a layman.”

As outrage grew over Price’s comments and behavior, Price went on to tweet: “Since we’ve got a lot of hurt manfeels today, lemme make something clear: this is my feed. I’m not on the clock here. I’m not your emotional courtesan just because I’m a dev. Don’t expect me to pretend to like you here.” (Emphasis mine.)

Gaming news website Ten Ton Hammer was quick to pick up on the drama, with writer Lewis Burnell calling the incident a “PR nightmare.” Fans on the Guild Wars 2 subreddit were equally appalled. One commenter wrote: “I won’t spend money in a game where the developers can treat the community with such false flag disrespect.”

The drama came to an abrupt conclusion. Mike O’Brien, president of ArenaNet, wrote in a short but simple forum post: “Recently two of our employees failed to uphold our standards of communicating with players. Their attacks on the community were unacceptable. As a result, they’re no longer with the company.”

He went on to add: “I want to be clear that the statements they made do not reflect the views of ArenaNet at all. As a company we always strive to have a collaborative relationship with the Guild Wars community. We value your input. We make this game for you.”

Controversy ensued.

Were Price’s comments justified?

Don’t expect me to pretend to like you here.

Jessica Price, tweeting as @Delafina777

Arguments for Price

  • Regardless of whether Deroir meant to be condescending, his comments read as condescending to Price. Her tweets could be forgiven as an outburst at the systematic misogyny she faced in day-to-day life.
  • Price posted her comments on her personal Twitter. She hadn’t asked for Deroir’s unsolicited feedback, and found it actively offensive.

Arguments against Price

  • Price blew up on a fan of her work who had tried to engage with her in good faith. She went on to insult other Guild Wars 2 players and content creators. Her  behavior was toxic, unprofessional, and far outweighed any hurt that Deroir’s tweet could have caused.
  • Price’s Twitter was a public forum that anyone could see. While there is an option to make your Twitter private, Price didn’t make use of that option. Therefore, Deroir couldn’t be blamed for responding to Price’s Twitter essay.

My thoughts

I believe that Price was quite clearly in the wrong here.

  • First, I think it’s fairly obvious that Price’s Twitter is a public forum. Anyone on the Internet can reply to it, regardless of whether they’re a bystander, a troll, or — as it may happen — a popular public figure who makes money for the company you work for. Given that Price chose to engage with Twitter and didn’t make use of the privacy option, the open nature of her feed is entirely on her.
  • Second, as a feminist and someone who believes strongly in social justice, this has nothing to do with gender. Deroir responded to Price’s essay because he was a fan who was passionate about the Guild Wars 2 story. He would have done the same if Price had been a man, a transsexual, or a talking squirrel with an Internet connection. In this light, Price’s accusations of misogyny and “mansplaining” hold no water.
  • Third, Price’s reactions were not only negative but hideously disproportionate. Everyone has had bad days or called people names in their head. But it’s one thing to think such thoughts, and another thing entirely to write them for anyone to read in a public forum. No one would get away with calling swathes of customers “rando asshats” to their face with their boss in earshot. The same applies to public Twitter threads.
  • Fourth, and most damning in my opinion: The only one that can be accused of sexism in this episode is Price herself. Take her tweet about “manfeels:” how many professionals could make a statement like that and still keep their job? Imagine the instant career suicide it would be for a man who mocked the “womanfeels” of his customers on Twitter. This is a blatant double standard that reeks of the same bigotry Price seems to blame on the rest of the world.

While I continue to support the rights of game developers and the rights of women, I cannot justify Price’s actions. Any reasonable person would have stepped back after the initial backlash, or reconsidered their words. But Price doubled down on her anger and continued to dig her own grave. This sort of behavior should not be tolerated — not from a game developer or from anyone else in the industry.

Should Price and Fries have been fired?

The message is very clear, especially to women at the company: if Reddit wants you fired, we’ll fire you.

Jessica Price, in an interview with The Verge

Arguments for firing

  • Price’s outburst was costing ArenaNet money by driving players away and poisoning customer goodwill. ArenaNet had to cut its losses as soon as possible.
  • Fries had to be fired along with Price because his comments, while not offensive on their own, implied he condoned her actions. Regardless of his actual opinions, this perception couldn’t be allowed to fester.
  • Price showed no remorse for her outburst, had previously caused social media incidents, and would likely cause more social media incidents in the future. Letting her remain employed would have been a ticking time bomb for ArenaNet.

Arguments against firing

  • Price’s actions, while obviously over the line, didn’t warrant the harsh measure of taking away her livelihood in an industry that is already overworked and underpaid.
  • Some bad-faith Redditors took advantage of Internet anonymity to join the bandwagon and demand that Price be fired. It’s unclear how much of the community backlash was real and how much of it was manufactured.
  • Firing Price sets the precedent that the community can fire anyone they don’t like. This threatens the livelihoods of game developers in an industry that has no shortage of unreasonable consumers.

My thoughts

This is a far more contentious issue, as we don’t know what has gone on behind ArenaNet’s walls. We also don’t know how much of the community outrage was a result of social media manipulation and astroturfing on Reddit. What is clear is that ArenaNet’s eventual decision was both swift and final.

In my view, ArenaNet faced lasting PR damage regardless of how they dealt with the issue. They were backed into a corner by Price’s actions, the community, and the games media. None of their options were attractive:

  • Do nothing and hope it blows over. This would have been a breach of customer faith, and permanently poisoned the relationship between Guild Wars 2 devs and the community.
  • Issue a general apology and ask the community for forgiveness. This would have been a step in the right direction. However, the root of the problem — Price — would have remained at the company, providing further fuel for resentment and social media drama. It could have fueled community perceptions that ArenaNet tacitly condoned Price’s behavior.
  • As above, but have Price and Fries issue an apology as well. In my opinion, this would have been the best solution, as it would have humbled the offenders and let them start off on a new foot with the community. Unfortunately, given Price’s previous remarks on social media and her actions following the incident, it doesn’t look like she was ever willing to give ArenaNet this option.
  • Fire Price, keep Fries, have Fries issue an apology. This would have gotten rid of the main offender while retaining the 13-year company veteran. Fries had built up goodwill with the community and his actions could be explained away as protecting a co-worker. However, firing only the woman and not the man would validate Price’s perception of sexism. Worse, if she later went to news outlets to smear ArenaNet (as she later did) it would give her potent fuel and provide the news outlets with an easy angle.
  • Fire both Price and Fries. This is the darkest timeline — representing a massive loss of talent on ArenaNet’s part — but is the best PR move in the long run. The fans are appeased, Price gets kicked, Fries lays low, and the damage to ArenaNet’s reputation is minimal if Price approaches the news. ArenaNet can always rehire Fries once the controversy dies down in a few months.

I don’t envy the choice Mike O’ Brien had to make, but he had to make it. He ultimately opted for the choice that had the least chance of coming back to bite ArenaNet. This outcome was pretty shitty, then, but the best we could have hoped for.

Why is this an issue?

I wouldn’t have blogged about this if that had been the end of it. But several gaming news websites have since covered the incident.

Price approached Kotaku and Eurogamer with her side of the story. She defended her comments while decrying ArenaNet and the gaming community at large as sexist and unreasonable.

This, in and of itself, was not what disturbed me. In fact, I appreciate that she did such a thing — even if it was to slander her former employer — because it gives us an opportunity to see things from her point of view.

But what I found disturbing is how many ostensibly journalistic news websites took her side in the name of feminism, without actually researching the issue and presenting it in a balanced light.

Here are all the unbiased articles from gaming news websites I could find:

And here are all the ones supporting one of the participants in the spat:

Supporting Deroir

Supporting Price

One of these lists is longer than the other.

Excerpts from Gaming Journalism

Welcome to the game industry, a place where women can be treated like crap and then fired for the trouble they’ve supposedly caused. A place where workers with limited power still use that power to stand up for themselves, and meanwhile their spineless bosses fold to the hordes of Reddit bullshit that gets thrown their way.

Alayna Cole, writing for PC Authority

Kotaku’s coverage paints Price as a victim of systematic abuse. It never mentions any of her caustic tweets, paraphrasing them with language like “she’d been working in narrative for a decade and didn’t need the concept of branching dialogue explained to her.” Meanwhile, it cherry-picks toxic responses from fans on Twitter: “All the while, people rained down insults on Price, accusing her of being an ‘SJW screaming child,’ playing ‘the vagina card,’ and other nastiness of the like.” There is no suggestion that Price had done anything to cause that outrage — and, naturally, no coverage of opposing viewpoints to be found.

Rock Paper Shotgun, a publication I respect, sided with Price. RPS’s Graham Smith wrote: “Price quote-tweeted Deroir’s response, correctly connecting it to the all-too common situation of women game developers being condescended on Twitter.” (Emphasis mine.) He goes on to recount several of Price’s caustic tweets, including the remark about “rando asshats,” without any indication that any of this is inappropriate for an authority figure to post in a public forum. His defense? “Price’s tweets on July 4th were clearly responding not to a single tweet but explicitly addressing the broader reality of being a female game dev.” I guess when Price quoted Deroir’s comment and bashed him, she didn’t actually mean to do that.

The Verge sided with Price, suggesting that her outburst was emotionally justified. Its coverage carefully omitted Price’s mention of “manfeels.” According to writer Megan Farokhmanesh, the issue was not with Price’s behavior but with the abuse female developers face from fans: they are “expected to perform more of this emotional labor and to do it with a smile on our faces (the sort of stuff that, from a male dev, gets dismissed as him being a bit prickly, or even lauded as him not suffering fools gladly, is a mortal sin coming from a female dev).” Because, as I’m sure we’re all aware, no man has ever lost his job for insensitive, sexist remarks on social media.

The hot takes continue, in various shapes and forms. I was especially perturbed by PC Authority’s “coverage.” In this opinion piece, writer Alayna Cole described Deroir as a “stereotypically patronising piece of shit,” put down his honest attempt at discussion, and (of course) omitted the remarks made by Price that had caused the entire outrage in the first place.

Truth and Journalism

I am appalled by how left-wing gaming journalism has handled this — especially influential giants like Kotaku, RPS, and The Verge — because they have manipulated their coverage of the situation to make it about something it is not.

I can accept differing viewpoints on this situation — my opinion, after all, is shaped by my imperfect ability to research and understand. I can even accept if a publication chooses to take a stance on the issue. But when you omit words and cherry-pick comments to demonize your opponents, that is not good faith reporting. That is not journalism.

I don’t know which possibility is most damning.

  • These writers didn’t notice the remarks that I and the entire Guild Wars 2 community was up in arms about.
  • They saw but intentionally omitted those remarks in order to further their narrative.
  • They believe Price was justified and saw no issue with the remarks.

All of these possibilities are incredibly disappointing, and an insult to the news outlets that did take the time to write quality coverage.

As for the issue of feminism that has been repeatedly brought up, here is what I think: This situation had nothing to do with feminism in the first place. Conflating it with feminism is an insult to feminists.

Women face real problems in the tech and gaming industries. The concerns Price raised in her interviews with Kotaku and The Verge are real, and I sympathize with them. But this is a witch hunt, not a debate. Deroir showed nothing but respect and enthusiasm from the beginning. It was Price who shut him down, accused him of misogyny, gloated over hurt “manfeels,” and went to news outlets to complain about her unreasonable male boss for firing her.

Who is the sexist here? Who has brought gender into the discussion? Who has used slurs with the intent to hurt? And who has shown no respect for critics, commenters, or indeed anyone at all who disagrees with her point of view?

Afterword

After all this — after researching every actor in the incident, after reading articles sympathetic to both Price and Deroir, and poring over every single hot take imaginable — I have to say that this has been an exercise in the malleable nature of perception. It’s easy to read a single executive summary of a situation, and then think that you know all about it. If commenters on the Internet are vitriolic towards one another, this is the reason: they each live in their own version of the world, never knowing the viewpoint of another, with no room for compromise.

In researching this article, I’ve had to break down some of my own assumptions — about who I thought was in the right, about the reliability of certain news outlets. It has been an enlightening, and quite frankly, exhausting journey. It certainly didn’t leave me with any warm fuzzy feeling or a sense that I’d found the truth.

But at least my faith has been reaffirmed in one aspect: if someone acts like an absolute twat in the online world, they’re going to face real-world consequences for it.

She couldn’t block this one.

Hicci, on Reddit

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