Activision is in a tight spot. Even before the Infinity Ward scandal exploded, public opinion stood against them and the company wasn’t doing a lot of community outreach to repair its reputation.
Enter Dan Amrich, former video games journalist and recent hire at Activision, to fill the role of social media manager.
Amrich started a blog and opened a Twitter account. He produced podcasts, gave out swag at PAX East, and hosted trivia contests. Then, he waded into a Facebook group to engage some gamers angry with Activision in a discussion. What happened next was a misunderstanding.
In the Facebook conversation, Amrich said, “[Former Infinity Ward heads Vince Zampella and Jason West] had very large bonuses; those bonuses are being redistributed to everybody else, to the people who did not allegedly attempt to steal company secrets,” he said. “Activision is not pocketing that bonus money; it’s still going to the people who work at IW.”
These quotes drew attention from outlets like Develop and Joystiq, which framed them as official Activision statements. The problem is, they weren’t official Activision statements — they were Amrich’s personal conjecture.
“[It] was inevitable that the lines would be blurred,” Amrich said in an apology on his Activision blog. “Problem is, this time, I think I helped blur them. I’ll be more clear from now on when I’m speaking off the top of my head, the way I was in that conversation, and when I am referencing official info.”
None of the sites that ran the story corrected their posts to reflect that Amrich’s quotes were not official Activision statements.
To be fair to Amrich and to explore why so many community managers find themselves in these “blurry” situations, we should look at how the role of community manager has evolved over the last six years. Before Xbox Live’s Larry “Major Nelson” Hryb — who holds the ambiguous title director of programming for Xbox Live — community managers were mostly forum moderators, people whose job entailed monitoring message boards and weeding out trolls.
Once Xbox Live launched in 2005, however, three things changed. First, companies realized how handy it is to have a human face representing their product. Second, companies figured out that having someone connect with fans was a great way to obtain and integrate feedback without having to go through tons of online surveys and focus groups. Third — and this is where Amrich and all the rest run into trouble — community managers evolved into the only point of direct contact between fans and companies. The tendency there is to be as transparent as possible, even when it might not be in the company’s best interest.
“What do is similar to what we used to do: interacting with people, bringing information to gamers,” Amrich tells GamePro, referencing his 16-year career as an editor at magazines like GamePro and The Official Xbox Magazine before joining Activision. “But [this job] is also its own thing, and that thing is still being defined. It is equal parts terrifying and exciting and humbling to figure it out as we go along.”
Looking at how Amrich and other community managers define their roles reveals just how confused both they and their employers are about what they do. Some of them are titled Senior Community Managers, some are called Community Strategists, and some are labeled Creative Strategists. Jeff Green, the “Major Nelson of EA” is called Editor-in-Chief of EA.com — and not in a sarcastic way meant to reference his long career as Editor-in-Chief of Games for Windows: The Official Magazine.
“What does [my job title] mean? That’s a great question,” Green says. “I made up the title, and I made up the job as well. It came out of the work I started to do on the EA podcast while I was actually still [an associate producer on] The Sims group. I felt there was a void at EA; I felt it was weird that there wasn’t a company podcast. Everything here is very game- and studio-focused and there’s not a lot that’s happening from the top level that unifies things. So I pitched it, and they dug it.”
Since then, his role has evolved in response to EA’s shifts as a company from a centralized model into a decentralized structure of studio groups. He Twitters, he blogs, and he writes content for EA.com that’s designed to funnel gamers who go there to shop for EA-brand games toward EA subcommunities that they might find interesting. Green also tries to unify EA by speaking to all the different components of the publisher/developer giant.
What does that make him — public relations, marketing, or an EA family therapist? It’s still undefined. Green thinks that maybe he should be in the public-relations department even though he’s not public relations just to make it easier for his bosses to figure out what to do with him.
Take for example the Command & Conquer 4 incident. Green brought home the game to play and got frustrated by his experience with the digital rights management system and happened to Tweet about it: “Booted twice–and progress lost–on my single-player C&C4 game because my DSL connection blinked. DRM fail. We need new solutions.”
Like Amrich’s Facebook misadventure, his statement was picked up by video games news outlets and framed as “a man from EA trash talked Command & Conquer 4 DRM.” Green was reluctant to tell GamePro exactly what happened immediately after making the Tweets that later led him to tone down his frustration in subsequent Tweets. The phrase “wild beast that needs to be broken” was used twice during the interview with GamePro when trying to tactfully describe EA’s PR-departmental reaction to the incident.
Increasingly, the proving ground for community managers seems to be crisis situations. When a publisher or developer makes a mistake or when rumors flare up around controversy, often a community is the first to step in and speak up — which is why it’s easy to confuse them with public-relations officials. Major Nelson himself set the standard for this behavior early in his career. In 2004, just before the Xbox 360 launched and back when all Hryb had to work with was a blog, rumors surfaced that Microsoft was going to buy Nintendo.
“It was one of my toughest days,” Hryb recalls. “I went onto my blog and said, ‘No, no, that’s not true.’ I got a flurry of calls from [Microsoft’s] marketing and PR department going, ‘Why did you say that?!’ And I said, ‘Well, are we?’ And they said, ‘Well, no.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s why I said it.’ That was a defining moment in the organization when they realized that transparency is so critical and valuable for feedback and just part of the gaming culture.”