Jessica Price and the Economy of Expression

I’ve also posted this on my proper blog, which has links to the Twitter threads.

There is a developer at Platinum Games named Hideki Kamiya, who enjoys being fairly rude to people on Twitter, as well as blocking and insulting paying customers on his personal Twitter account. There has been no serious suggestion that he should be fired for his abuse towards the community. Rather, we praise his hard-hitting and no-shit-taken attitude towards people who don’t follow HIS RULES in HIS SPACE.

There is also me. I’ve done student instruction at university, and I work in software engineering. Imagine if my university found out that sometimes I say mean things to students (I’ve even told a few to fuck off) during my personal time, or if my employer found out that I sometimes say mean things to people who use their software. Sometimes I say that certain things are sexist or racist, and sometimes I’m mistaken. Would I be fired for participating in such normal human conversation off the clock?

And then there’s Jessica Price, a narrative designer. On her personal time, she tweeted about some of her knowledge of MMORPG narrative design. A player of a game she works on, Guild Wars 2 (by ArenaNet), challenged her, and she snippily (one may say rudely) told him to back off. For this, she was summarily fired, to loud cheers from the gaming community. (A coworker, Peter Fries, was also fired, presumably for defending Jessica on Twitter.)

Devil in the Details

Let’s review Jessica’s actions more closely and see if we can find out what kind of terrible thing she did that Kamiya hasn’t done. It started with a (nearly 30-tweet long) Twitter thread by Jessica on the topic of narrative design in MMOs. Deroir, a streamer and Youtuber for Guild Wars 2, responded by challenging her statements, and Jessica told him to back off.

Jessica later posted this, linking Deroir’s challenge to a trend of what one might term “mansplaining”:

A lot of back-and-forth followed on her feed, mostly with random Twitter denizens. Here are a few of her later posts, not aimed at anyone in particular, condensed into blockquotes for brevity’s sake.

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.
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.
The attempts of fans to exert ownership over our personal lives and times are something I am hardcore about stopping. You don’t own me, and I don’t owe you.

The last two tweets reflect a very important modern movement in labor, where workers are attempting to resist that trend towards the 24/7 workweek: it has become increasingly common for employers to expect workers to be on call, and be willing to speak with clients, and serve as PR to customers on off hours. It’s a pernicious shift in the American economy, entirely enabled by modern technology. We’ll return to it later.

A Polite Affront

It is a common refrain that Deroir was being polite in his original statement. This is a complete misunderstanding of the expertise dynamic at play: there is no way for a layman to politely tell an expert that their understanding of their own field is lacking. No matter what kind of honorifics you use, you cannot politely express the sentiment that another’s years of experience are unable to see a truth that your green eyes can.

A somewhat restrained perspective by xkcd

We understand this dynamic well when it is applied to other fields: for example, there’s no way for a layman to “politely” tell a scientist that his research is wrong. Yet many fields of expertise have been subject to a gradual erosion of status, where the common person now thinks it their right to sit at the same table as experts and spout their mal-informed opinions. And now, it is somehow possible for someone who plays games to “respectfully” pull up a chair and tell a narrative designer why they’re wrong.

The fact that an expert is sharing their knowledge is not an invitation for you to challenge that knowledge. It is only an invitation to absorb that knowledge, and anything else is an affront to the many years of study and practice that separate the expert from the layman.

“Why Make it about Sex?”

Others have claimed that Deroir’s complaints would have been made just as equally had it been a man in Jessica’s spot. This claim, while perhaps true, misses the very real trend of men failing to respect women’s expertise in and out of the workplace, and the consequences that follow.

The experience of “having your expertise explained to you” is common for underrepresented groups across all domains — and is especially frequent in fields subject to the aforementioned “erosion of status”. It is particularly noticeable in the games industry, because gamers — here still largely young white males — seem to lack a conception of expertise, as evinced by the blind claims that Deroir wanted to “have a discussion” in the tweets and videos linked throughout this article. And while men like Kamiya are praised, or at worst ignored, for “taking no shit” from wannabes, women who dare to speak out are… well, fired.

Rules of the Market

In the United States, you can functionally be fired for no particular reason. (Unions, though, can be successful in bargaining for firing protections.) This means that businesses, as controllers of people’s livelihoods, can also act as controllers of their expression. In recent years, the American “Left” has sought to use this dynamic to discourage bigotry and big lobby, by pressuring companies to fire or cut ties with those expressing such views. Normally, however, this is restricted to B2B ties (such as the NRA in the wake of Parkland), or those who express these views on the clock.

This debacle marks a step in the wrong direction. Now, we seek to fire someone for their private expression of… being rude to someone on Twitter? Even if you think that businesses regulating private expression is fine, the notion of being fired for an uncomfortable conversation on Twitter is absurd. Yet this is exactly what ArenaNet wants developers to do: be perfect marketing robots every hour of the day. Who of us will survive when being rude on personal time is a fireable offense? (Presumably, it will be men like Hideki Kamiya.)

The source of these complaints is also ironic. One often hears that the gamers are defending free speech and ethics in game journalism from the hecking SJWs, but what now? When figures in the gaming community flirt with neo-Nazism or shout racial slurs, they’re just “sorting themselves out”, but when a female developer sarcastically calls someone “my dude”, she needs to be fired?

Make no mistake: this is the face of the gaming community. There is no voice in the gaming community defending Jessica (although I have some hope that Jim Sterling will say something reasonable), while developers are by and large utterly frightened by this event. To speak out about any transgression by the gaming community will now be, for many developers not in positions of power, to risk career suicide. It’s yet to be seen how media will approach ArenaNet’s decision, but I pray they support the developers.