Negative player feedback - an academic perspective

Roundtable

Over recent years, games companies have developed ever-closer, more direct relationships with their audiences, with the immediacy of player feedback becoming an important part of how games are shaped. However, with all the positive benefits, there are some times when player feedback steps beyond constructive criticism and becomes problematic for those on the receiving end. But what is the extent of the issue, how does it impact the teams involved and how have individuals learned to deal with it? To help answer some of these questions, we've been helping Alison Lamont, sociology lecturer at the University of Roehampton, connect with games companies to understand their concerns and shed an academic light on the issue.

Here's Alison's findings so far, in her own words:

Why do gamers sometimes get so angry online with the people who are making the games they love? Is the way that some players sometimes take negative feedback to an extreme, impacting on developers and the environment in which games are made, advertised and run?

These questions that motivated me and my colleague, Dr Robert Busfield, at the University of Roehampton to interview developers and community managers at a range of studios, facilitated by Ukie. We spoke to people working in a range of roles working on all sorts of games - from small indies to mid-size studios to those developing next-gen games for big publishers, from free-to-play on mobile platforms, to live PC games in beta, to console releases. So while our sample is small, we tried to cover a range of experiences.

We asked what developers do and have done about extreme examples of negative behaviour online in games they worked on. We learned that the role of community managers has become key, with one developer describing them as ‘the voice of the players in the studio,’ being able to feedback the mood on boards and channels and being so in touch with players that they can pre-empt PR disasters before they happen. Community managers are not alone – monitoring live games can provide devs with a range of data about player behaviour in-game to gauge how serious threats to ‘quit the game’ or sabotage a feature really are. However, almost everyone we spoke to emphasised the need for ‘thick skin’ and to ‘watch what you say’, making these two personal skills vital individual mechanisms for self-defence against online abuse.

We asked about incidents of negative gamer reactions to games online that our interviewees were aware of, and got all sorts of answers. From the graphics in Cuphead, to golden bullets in World of Tanks, to more recent incidents including No Man’s Sky, our respondents were very much aware of incidents and how they affected their colleagues in other studios. They had a lot of sympathy for those caught up in these bursts of outrange but on the whole, felt that the root problem is poor communication: as one respondent says, while it’s ‘it's easy to say something stupid [that] takes on a life of its own,’ ultimately, as another told us: ‘if it goes wrong it's because you haven't communicated changes properly to the players.’

So the way in which studios communicate their plans is central, and of course that has changed a lot over the last decade. We asked how developers feel about interacting with their audiences online, as compared to face-to-face interactions. The message was loud and clear: having channels of feedback is overwhelmingly positive, particularly compared to the old days when it was much harder to hear back from players. Yet many of our interviewees used the term ‘double-edged sword’ to describe the always-on culture of online feedback. While audiences are generally excited to get developer attention on Discord, Twitch, Reddit or Twitter, it was also an unpredictable medium that exposed them to sometimes very personal attacks. So, developing the ‘thick skin’ mentioned earlier was foregrounded as a vital component for meeting players online. Everyone said the same: it wouldn’t happen face-to-face…

So, our early findings are twofold:

First, there seems to be two fundamentally contradictory dynamics in play: developers get the blame for ‘poor communication’ of the game’s development when there is an outburst; yet everyone agrees that "the Internet" is at the root of it as that these very personal, negative backlashes wouldn't happen face-to-face. So it's seen simultaneously as an "individual communication problem" (and therefore fixable by taking the right steps, such as introducing community managers and closely monitoring player feedback) but also ‘platform’ problem about how we all communicate online (and therefore not fixable by any individual, but needs a platform-wide response).

Secondly, everyone we spoke to spoke warmly about their own audiences and rejected the idea that their fanbase had the kind of ‘toxicity’ problem making media headlines. However, they certainly recognised their own prickly customers. But unlike media reports into "toxicity," it seems that in day-to-day interaction with players, its not’s an angry vocal tribe that’s the problem. Trolls, it was agreed, are pretty easy to deal with, with tools like bans, blocks and a policy of ‘not feeding’. Instead, it's the truly passionate fans who can be the most challenging. Most of the time these players offer the kind of continual support and engagement with the game that studios value (and need to survive). Yet they can also be the source of some of the most intractable criticisms and are the hardest to handle if they feel that their feedback has been ignored or their favourite features changed.

So while it might be a minority of voices making the maximum ‘toxicity’ noise in the headlines, for developers dealing with feedback on the ground, it can be a different group altogether who impact on their day-to-day experiences of engaging with their players.

These findings suggest that we need to rethink ‘toxicity’ not as ‘geek masculinity’ or ‘gamer culture’ but as a form of communication. In doing this, we also need to reconsider the politics of blame directed at individuals for the outbursts their games sometimes attract. If it really is the medium of the Internet that is to blame, then work needs to be done structuring interaction in ways which improves accountability for personal, unreasonable attacks and protecting those receiving it. If it’s poor communication between studios and their audiences, then system-wide guidelines and expectations could be developed to help and support workers, particularly in small indies and for live games.

Next steps

I presented these findings at the British Sociological Association's Annual Conference in April this year. Off the back of the response at the conference, and based on feedback from interviewees, and along with recent events in the gaming news, Robert and I are now looking at broadening this conversation and developing practical, research-informed principles of best practice.

We are seeking to bring people working in all corners of the gaming industry together to discuss these issues in a free roundtable event on Friday 9th November 2018 at the University of Roehampton. We want to see what insights we can uncover when we share experiences and insights across journalism, digital entertainment trade bodies, developers and community managers, and academics researching into games and mediated communications. Based on these insights, we want to be practical and ask what we can do about it to improve things.

This half-day event will take place as part of the Economic and Social Research Council's "Festival of Social Science", held at the University of Roehampton, London, on 9th November 2018, from 2pm – 5pm. If you work in or around the games industry and would like to participate, please contact me at: alison.lamont@roehampton.ac.uk.

The event itself is free and we can offer contributions towards travel costs.

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The 16th annual Festival of Social Science takes place from 3—10 November 2018 with over 300 free events nationwide. Run by the Economic and Social Research Council, the festival provides an opportunity for the public to meet some of the country’s leading social scientists to discover, discuss and debate how research affects their lives. With a range of creative and engaging events going on across the UK, there’s something for everyone including businesses, charities, schools and government agencies. The full programme is available at: www.esrc.ac.uk/festival. Catch up and join in on Twitter using #esrcfestival.