The recent controversy that flared up after ArenaNet fired a pair of Guild Wars 2 developers was an interesting example of one set of facts being interpreted in completely different ways depending upon what the preconceived notions of the viewer were. It was the observer effect from physics rolled into a social sciences experiment wrapped in a Skinner box. An awful lot has already been written about this from several angles and while I’ll briefly touch on some of those things, today we’re going to focus on a couple of angles that have, strangely, gone almost completely uncommented on.
Let’s begin by saying this: I have no opinion on whether Jessica Price and Peter Fries should have been fired as opposed to say, having an uncomfortable meeting with their bosses or serving a two day suspension. I can see both sides of those arguments though termination seems pretty severe if this incident was the only issue at play. All I have to add is the observation that companies generally don’t fire important employees for small infractions, which leads me to believe this might not have been the only issue ArenaNet has dealt with.
Various publications I follow were quick to defend Ms. Price and to frame the entire affair as caving in to the whims of social media trolls. They were less quick to admit that Ms. Price was aggressive and rude and quite arrogant in her twitter outburst. In my experience, people like that are generally unpleasant to work with. In short, the twitter thread in question is that of a bully. Quick to take offense where none is intended, shifting the battleground to make others uncomfortable and denigrating any who dare disagree.
So instead of gender or diversity or corporate compliance that’s what we’re going to touch on in this quick, late, little piece. Power dynamics and professional arrogance.
Let’s get one thing straight right at the top. I have absolutely zero fucking doubt that Ms. Price has faced considerable professional difficulty as a result of her gender. People are assholes and say assholey things. Groups in power be they white men in corporate culture, Muslim monarchs in the Middle East or extreme nationalist Buddhist Monks in pre-Chinese rule Tibet, tend to do whatever they can to stay in power. Nobody gives power, they only have power taken. It’s one of the the foundational lessons of human history.
Men have, for what I’m sure are a huge variety of reasons I am unqualified to comment on, dominated the tech industry and studies have shown that men do treat the arguments of women dismissively.
The general state of violence and intimidation that women face in the workplace and the world at large keeps them constantly on the defensive.
All that said. The nature of these gender dynamics problems almost always come down to power dynamics. They are all about a privileged group maintaining power by shutting down the voices of a group with less power.
But here’s the thing nobody has talked about. In this situation Ms. Price had the power. Ms. Price was punching down, as you can see by the almost shocked way the young man who was trying to engage with her reacted. It’s classic bully behavior. And I’m here to let you in on a little secret. Bullying sucks. If any of you have ever worked with a bully you know just how miserable they can make your life.
And here’s another way I know about that. From the age of 11 to the age of about 21 I was a bully. I was a violent angry young guy who just cruised the world looking for someone to cross me so I could make them feel small before I kicked them in the teeth. Were there a variety of things in my history that had pushed me to become a bully? Yeah sure. I grew up feeling utterly powerless and stupid. I had a father and a brother who were both happy to make me walk on eggshells in between bouts of extreme violence. They made me feel incompetent, stupid and useless and it made me want what they had. Power over someone else. So when I got old and bold enough to take it, I did.
I broke every bone in my hands, my nose and lost teeth in those years of bullying and the faces of certain people are seared into my mind. I still to this day recall one young guy’s sinking look of fear and resignation and he understood what I was about to do to him. It haunted me for years and years.
So there were reasons for my bullying. But none of that excuses jack shit. My internal issues were mine to work out. I had no right, and Ms. Price has no right, to turn our internal frustrations and feelings of powerlessness outward like a fire hose in the face of anyone who disagrees with us.
All I, and now Ms. Price, accomplished was making others feel what we feel. The spreading of fear and misery is not a credible or laudable response to injustice. Its a wheel of violence and intimidation. Fuel that keeps spreading and spreading because violence breeds violence.
There’s simply no defending Ms. Price’s outburst against a person with less power than her. She’s the big writer full of self aggrandizement and he was the small voice trying to engage with her for a moment. If she was in the middle of a bad day, or was having difficulty containing her frustration she, as the one with power, could easily have simply not responded. No one would have noticed. Nobody would have cared. What was gained? The only thing that was gained was the feeling I used to get at the moment my fist hit someones nose and heard a crack. The transference of my misery onto another.
And before we go any further: the defense that said this was her “personal” twitter account is absurd. These public social media accounts exist, in large part, for self publicity. It’s why I have a YouTube twitter account, a private account and still another centered around my career.
That’s my quick take on the power dynamics of the issue but there’s what I feel is the more important point we have to address.
The Wisdom Of The Layman And The Necessity Of Criticism
We need to discuss the wisdom of the layman and the arrogance of the professional. Ms. Price and her colleague were quick to defend her indefensible tirade by citing gender dynamics that played absolutely zero role in the issue. It was so obviously not at play that they quickly retreated to an appeal to authority argument.
You see, as professional MMORPG fantasy writers (a genre famous for the quality of it’s narratives I might add) they were simply above being questioned by anyone other than professional writers. I’m about to admit a personal bias here but either way I believe my argument stands.
I find this “writersplainin” particularly repellent on a number of levels. Lets’ start with the personal. I write. I have for years. From poetry and literary short fiction, to articles, youtube videos and detailed long form social media posts. I spend a tremendous amount of time writing and have put thousands of hours into honing a voice. I also write and play music. The little blurb of rock that plays during my logo in the linked video is all me, drums, bass, guitars, voice and keys. I spent years playing in very good bands none of which ever made it far enough for me to become a full time professional. But my 30 years of playing music has left me highly confident in my chops. I feel fully qualified to discuss rock music composition and performance with anyone.
Now, I am not competent to discuss the difficulty of specific professional matters like booking an arena tour. Or how best to pack my gear on a private jet. But I am able to discuss how best to get a certain feedback tone. Or whether doubling vocal tracks takes away from the natural timbre of a voice in a particular recording.
Likewise, as a layman writer, and more importantly as an observant and thoughtful member of an audience, I and you and all of us are completely qualified to discuss ways to improve video game narratives. Because, video game stories are, by and large, fucking terrible, dreadful, barely literate dreck. They usually find their place on the spectrum of the written word somewhere between witty beer commercial and compelling day time soap opera.
Destiny and Destiny 2 were, presumably, written by professional writers and yet they are two of the least competent examples of storytelling it is possible to achieve. Are we, as a paying audience, somehow unqualified to point that out? And considering this, the media defending Ms. Price is particularly galling to me as honest criticism is, allegedly, the media’s stock in
Ms. Price was linking to a thread where she made excuses, very old, very used excuses, for why Player character writing in MMO’s is so notoriously fucking awful. And a careful, thoughtful, observant layman audience member offered an opinion for why she might be mistaken. By saying Deroir’s opinion is baseless because he, himself, is not a professional fantasy writer, you invalidate all criticism from anyone other than yourself and your peers. The very people who have a vested personal and professional interest to immunize themselves from critique.
Charles Bukowski was a mailman until his 50's. And that entire time, though he was writing, he could hardly be considered a professional. All
through those years he knew quite a bit about writing poetry even as he was sorting letters into machines.
Raymond Carver remained a not professional writer even as he was crafting some of the greatest short fiction ever set to page.
Breece DJ Pancake published one book shortly before committing suicide that remains a triumph of the short fiction form. Was he unqualified to speak on short fiction before that book went to print?
Was Nick Drake competent enough to critique folk music before his album (that flopped) was recorded?
And beyond even the legion examples of non professionals who are capable of critiquing a craft they understand, there are hundreds of fantastic critics of literature, film and games on college faculties or in newsrooms or writing on blogs at this moment.
None of the writers on Kotaku and Rock Paper Shotgun who lept to Ms. Price’s defense because they, like me, agree with her stances on social justice are professional video game writers. And yet, every single day these very people write articles critiquing video game narratives. Are their opinions utterly invalid because they are not now currently working as genre video game writers?
This principle is toxic and dangerous. It leads to a kind of authoritarianism of the professional. One we actually deal with often in our everyday lives. And one that needs to be torn down. You want to criticize how your doctor treated you? Fuck off and shut up. You’re not a doctor.
You don’t like poorly worded legislation currently working it’s way through a state house of representatives? Shut your fucking mouth, you’re not a state assemblyman.
You disagree with a verdict in a criminal court case? Sit the fuck down, you’re not a judge.
Don’t agree with a cop shooting an unarmed civilian? Fuck you, you’re not a cop.
This is a tyranny of professionals. It completely immunizes people from accountability from anyone other than their peers. And peoples peers tend to protect the status quo and each other.
It’s just flat wrong. There is wisdom in the layman’s opinions. Not all of them of course but many of them. For a multitude of reasons both within and outside of my control I ended up with a career that does not require me to write or play music. But I still do those things and, I like to flatter myself, do them pretty well. My opinion, and yours, matters. And professionals don’t know everything.
If they did, the writing in most video games wouldn’t be so fucking hilariously bad. So maybe Ms. Price and the writers at Bungie and anyone else who thinks they know better than their audience should pause, if only for a moment, to consider the possibility that they too can be wrong. And understand that useful criticism can come from anywhere.
Pliny The Welder is a professional in mental health of vulnerable populations. He welcomes any insight you may have on the matter. He is a NOT professional writer and musician. Feel free to comment on that as well. If he doesn’t like what you have to say. He’ll simply ignore it.
If you DO like what he has to say he’d be honored if you followed him on twitter or subscribed to his YouTube channel. Google Pliny The Welder and the appropriate platform. His Facebook page is his personal social media account and as such is where he reserves the right to be a fuck face.