“Reddit isn't about discussion — it's about power and domination": former Riot PR on the dark side of gaming subreddits

 

For gamers, Reddit has become one of the biggest and most influential hubs over recent years. The platform has become not just a community board, but a place where news break, often even before the media gets to them. For game developers, Reddit has also long been a way to connect with players on a more personal level, which in turn has created a culture of currying favors with the masses through emissaries. 

 

As time passed (and as masses grew), Reddit has become a double-edged sword for game companies. To get a better idea of how that has affected game developers, we spoke to one Ryan Rigney, a veteran of community and public relations with a track record for Riot Games, EA, and PUBG.

 

 

Today, Rigney works as Marketing Director for Odyssey Interactive, a promising studio formed by people who led the charge on games like League of Legends and Teamfight Tactics, but he’s been in gaming for a decade or more. “I've been in the games industry proper since 2015, when I started at Riot Games as a writer,” he told us. “But I spent a number of years before that doing freelance writing about games for magazines like GamePro, Wired, and Edge. About ten years ago I wrote a book chronicling the development of a bunch of early iPhone games.”

 

"Only one opinion can win."

 

This experience and his success as a writer meant Rigney was well placed to work with companies looking to connect with their user base, and that surely followed. His early experiences as a community manager or spokesperson with Riot were largely positive and like many professionals who used Reddit for work. Under the nickname Riot_Cactopus, Rigney spent the time it takes to understand what the site wants. 

 

“I will say with regards to Reddit in particular, I was at one point very very into it and got ‘good’ at it, if you can call it that. The League of Legends subreddit voted me their ‘Rioter of the Year’ three times, I think. They knew I was a PR guy but still liked me because I knew how to shitpost, had a lot of patience, and generally just treated people with respect while trying to be helpful.” 

Things fall apart

As time passed, the problems with Reddit became more apparent, especially with the way the voting system discourages original or unique thinkers from contributing. “In 2021, we can pretty much discard the pretense that discussions on video-game-themed subreddits represent pure player opinion,” Rigney said of the site. “Reddit isn't about discussion — it's about power and domination. Only one opinion can win, and it's represented by the comment that gets upvoted the most. Our brains have a very strong bias toward ‘socially-proven’ ideas. Of course, we can disagree, but only people with a strong contrarian disposition are fully immune to the social proof effect.” 

 

This in turn led to a situation where certain opinions were driving conversation, and the site became easier for users to “game” to suit their own agendas. “What happened with Reddit is that a lot of people started to understand this dynamic: if an opinion gets highly upvoted, it influences a lot of other people into agreeing with it. If you can express an opinion about a game that gets a lot of traction on Reddit, you even start to see it pop up in other places, all over the internet.

 

"You cannot get these people to look at the bigger picture and admit that they're participating in a domination ritual.” 

 

“Twitter works the same way, with likes and retweets, but Reddit is the place where players are best at using this tool to create specific narratives about video games that they play, and the point of this is usually to put pressure on game developers to make specific types of changes to their games,” he explained. This, in turn, puts huge power in the hands of users that may in reality only represent 1% or less of the player base, but claim to speak for “the community”, creating confusion for companies that were trying to get an overview of everyone using their products.

 

In turn, this almost became a tail-wagging-the-dog situation, where the tables were turned and users were working to change games with their influence on Reddit. “Because basically all Reddit users now understand this dynamic, it means that video game subreddits have become mostly about trying to influence the development of games, versus discussing them. That's just a fact that nobody who uses Reddit regularly would disagree with.”

The Dark Side 

Like so much of the web, though, Reddit was only useful at times. Employees of games companies that engaged with the site were exposed to a significant degree of toxicity over time. “It doesn't just affect community managers, it affects everyone who works on games”, Ryan told us. “When things get really negative, I've seen co-workers totally lose their motivation. You'd see them at work and watch the enthusiasm drain out of their eyes. I lived next to an environment artist who worked on The Last of Us Part II, and a particular subsection of Reddit was dedicating themselves to tearing that game apart when it first came out. It was crazy, because plenty of people believe that's an incredible game, but my neighbor couldn't see that bright side. He got actually depressed. He thought people hated the thing he'd dedicated years of his life to. So ultimately he left the games industry.” 

 

"Video game subreddits have become mostly about trying to influence the development of games, versus discussing them."

 

When challenged, users can always hide behind the original premise, that the site is the community, and all they are providing is community feedback. “They'll always insist that it's about the particular issue at hand, saying things like, ‘I just think the progression system needs to be better, aren't I allowed to say that? It's feedback! Players should be able to give feedback to devs!’ You cannot get these people to look at the bigger picture and admit that they're participating in a domination ritual.” 

 

Sadly, the only way to win is not to play, in Ryan’s view. “If you post this interview, one of the top comments is going to be some guy insisting that all the feedback is valid because of XYZ reasons. The best way to preserve power is to pretend that power isn't even being wielded.”

 

If not Reddit, what then?

Ryan does admit that the problem isn’t necessarily Reddit’s though, but more a case of a site being used in a way that it maybe shouldn’t be and that developers can work on alternative ways to engage. “I don't think it's Reddit's fault. It's a fun website. It's fun to see what the most upvoted comment on a news story or opinion post is. I use Reddit every day. I don't think devs need to run Reddit to fix this problem. To fix it they just need to invest in community-building on other platforms.

 

“I think Discord's a more useful tool for devs at the moment because the immediate nature of it makes it harder for people to use to set an agenda or a narrative. It's actually about moment-to-moment discussion. It still has problems and risks but if you want good feedback and don't want to play power games it's probably better.” 

 

From Ryan’s point of view, Reddit still does have use, and game developers will have to interact with their users going forward in one way or another. Understanding the way the audience thinks is valuable, but not when communication is mostly reactionary, i.e. being told you’ve screwed up. 

 

For him, it’s on developers to set the tone and choose their own arena in which they will face the masses, baying or otherwise. “I think the place that devs use to interact with players becomes 'the community' by default. So putting dev energy into one place makes that more likely for the community to become centralized. It's always worth going to where players are to reach them, but for that day-to-day interactivity I think devs should be a lot more selective.”

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