"There's a lot of — for a lack of better words — politics in the games industry," the voice on the other end of my Skype call started. Pausing for several seconds before continuing, he elaborated, "This game of politics is influenced by outside forces and, in this case, the outside force was this outrage culture that's formed."
The voice on the other line, Josh Olin, former community manager at Evolve developer, Turtle Rock Studios, approached every question I asked him with an intentional cautiousness. After each question, Olin paused to think and was very slow and deliberate with his wording once he started, possessing the kind of apprehension that only comes from someone whose words recently led to his firing.
"All too often what tends to happen is people feel offended by anything, and they demand action be taken — they demand someone to blame, they demand someone to be held accountable," Olin told me. "In the case of outrage that exists around corporations, the corporations themselves don't want to be held accountable. If they have the opportunity to lay that accountability at the feet of the employee, that's obviously much better for their long-term brand and organizational goals. […] In a lot of ways, this outrage culture creates victims out of both companies and employees depending on circumstance."
For Olin, that scenario became all too real as a late-April tweet containing an opinion on the situation surrounding Donald Sterling — the disgraced owner of the Los Angeles Clippers who said he didn't want black people at his games — sealed his fate within 24 hours.
Here's an unpopular opinion: Donald Sterling has the right as an American to be an old bigot in the security of his own home. He's a victim.
— Josh Olin (@JD_2020) April 30, 2014
When you were raised in an era where segregation was perceived as "right", that will stick with some people. Doesn't make him a monster.
— Josh Olin (@JD_2020) April 30, 2014
But Olin claims that outrage isn't what led to his position being stripped from him, but rather the threat of outrage.
The irony of my Donald Sterling tweet(s) was I was raising an issue with sensational media. Expressly not defending his remarks or actions.
— Josh Olin (@JD_2020) May 1, 2014
Navigating the social media waters can be tricky these days. The line between being casually engaging and being inappropriate has become more and more blurred. One poorly-conceived tweet could be the difference between participating in a fulfilling conversation and seeing everything you've worked hard to attain come crashing down around you.
As Olin stated, getting fired for comments made on Twitter isn't anything new. We've seen people in both the video game and other industries get penalised for making jokes, generalizations, or even suggestions on social media networks. Adam Orth, ex-creative director at Microsoft, for instance, made remarks last year that some felt were inflammatory when he questioned those who were against the then-rumoured "always-on" policy of the Xbox One. It would later result in Orth leaving the company, and an official apology from Major Nelson on behalf of Microsoft.
Or take a stark contrast, Justine Sacco, a PR executive for media company IAC who last December tweeted, "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" It was not only racially and culturally insensitive, but also very much out of the blue. When I asked him about it, Olin agreed that IAC needed to sever ties with Sacco.
Individuals aren't the only ones who make mistakes or reveal volatile opinions online. As we've recently seen with brands ranging from SpaghettiOs to US Airways, social media managers with the keys to the brand accounts aren't infallible either. Even the official Twitter account of Ryse: Son of Rome came under fire last October after posting what appeared to be a boast about how many dinners the crunching team had been fed.
Olin's social media mishaps are just the latest in a long history of potentially inflammatory tweeting. During our conversation on Skype, Olin told me he believes that potential for outrage is what Turtle Rock acted on, rather than any already established one.
Once Olin tweeted his initial message, a conversation opened up on his Twitter page. Several of his followers began voicing their opinions on the tweet in a conversation that was very much a two-way street, as Olin took the time to reply to several of the reactions.
The initial responses ranged from sentiments like "totally, everybody should be outraged how this is a privacy case first, the racism part should come second" to "I understand the principle he wants to defend, but personal privacy is not justification for racism," with a few people arguing a different point than Olin was attempting to make, or calling Olin's tweet "ignorant."
The tenor of those initial replies, pro and con, is proof, to Olin, that his tweet was initially sparking useful discourse, not an immediate inferno of anger.
"It wasn't a reaction by the company to some overwhelming outrage against a terrible atrocity," Olin told me, criticising the nature of his dismissal. "It was the company fearing that outrage culture that exists and preemptively overreacting, though rather than there being some actual call for action from the community, they knee-jerked over the possibility that that might one day arise out of my remarks. Essentially, they apologized before anyone was demanding they apologise."
(I reached out to Evolve publisher 2K Games to get the other side of the story, but the publisher declined to comment.)
Olin is correct about the reaction to his tweet — to an extent. There were certainly people who were upset with his assessment of the situation — particularly his classifying of Sterling as a victim — but the reaction wasn't nearly as strong until the media first caught wind of it. When the first report, which included Olin's first tweet, went live on the online gaming publication The Escapist more than 12 hours after Olin's message was posted to Twitter, his original tweet, according to said report on The Escapist, had only been retweeted 25 times despite him having over 140,000 followers. Since then, the tweet has been retweeted nearly ten times as much.
Olin: 'All too often what tends to happen is people feel offended by anything, and they demand action be taken — they demand someone to blame, they demand someone to be held accountable.'
Also, while there were some arguing with Olin's stance shortly after he tweeted his opinion, many of the first responses to his first tweet were calm discussions.
Looking at the timeline of events as they played out on Twitter, following the posting of the first article covering the tweets, the number of hostile responses containing obscenities and less understanding tones rose sharply. There were even some who included mentions of Turtle Rock's official Twitter account in an attempt to bring the tweet to the studio's attention. More and more tweets began telling Olin his tweet was "thoughtless" or "racist defending" as his tweets grabbed more attention in the media and as they spread across Twitter.
However, many of those tweets came after Olin's company email account had already stopped working — the first sign, he claims, that the company was taking action. The number of responses steeped less in argumentation or debate and more in insults and gut reaction continued to grow following his public firing. As a result, many of the tweets directed towards Olin got more vitriolic, such as one that told him, "go fuck yourself."
Olin believes the article, which was originally headlined, "Evolve Community Mgr: Basketball Bigot Donald Sterling 'a Victim'" before being updated to note his subsequent firing, was unfair.
"In the context of a dozen tweets and @ replies, this sensational article carved out two with the sole objective to get a sensational headline," he said. "Where my previous employers and partners were most at fault is this immaturity in management [...] that led to very poor and hasty decisions — decisions driven by belief in that sensationalism, instead of trust in reality — trust in raw sentiment analysis at the point of sensationalism — the reality being that anybody who might have misinterpreted what I said, based on the tweets themselves or certainly this sensational article, already had their opinion corrected.
"I think I made it abundantly clear I wasn't suggesting that what Sterling said was right or good, I was simply advocating for the proper amount of attention to be given to the other side of this story, which were his rights being violated. And yes, in this country, as unpopular as this may be, even arseholes have rights."
Olin's initial tweet, which called Sterling a "victim" due to the publication of what were private, though racially charged, comments, looked damning. Despite the fact that Twitter was originally meant to be consumed 140 characters at a time, Olin claims the author of the article in question acted in an irresponsible manner that was harmful to both Olin and his career by only quoting that tweet. "If a journalist is looking to make a story about something that you said, they know the context of Twitter," Olin explained. "They know you might have said something just after it or just before it. It's their conscious decision or unconscious irresponsibility to not seek out that context, which resulted in the amplification of that misunderstanding."
Despite Olin's disagreement with the way his tweets were reported, The Escapist is standing by the way the original article read.
"We do not feel that we made any mistakes in reporting this story," Escapist editor-in-chief Greg Tito said to me in an email exchange. "Josh Olin, the public face of an important video game entity, made a comment in a public forum to 140,000 followers. We reported what he said without adding judgment or using any incendiary language, and suggested in the post that this was a significant issue worth discussing. It still is."
Tito: 'If Olin had written an editorial or a long form essay about the issues he clearly wanted to bring up in more detail, he would likely still be in his position today.'
Tito also responded to Olin's accusations of quoting him out of context. "Making potentially controversial opinions public on Twitter is ill-advised for exactly the reasons outlined by Josh Olin's departure from Turtle Rock Studios," he said.
"I would suggest that other people with positions in video games like PR and community management consider that any statement published with less than 140 characters is going to be taken out of context almost by definition. Olin had the right to hold an unpopular opinion. His employer had the right to dismiss him for making that unpopular opinion public when it is his job to make the company's games more popular. The Escapist had the right to publish a story about his statement on Twitter. If Olin had written an editorial or a long form essay about the issues he clearly wanted to bring up in more detail, he would likely still be in his position today."
Olin's quotes eventually reached Turtle Rock and 2K Games, which resulted in Olin's firing later on May 1, a day after he made the comments and he believes only after media coverage of the Tweets had elevated their profile. "Turtle Rock never considered context," he told me. "In this day and age, context is everything. But, as we saw, it was that hypersensitivity to the mere threat of possibility to outrage culture that resulted in, in my judgment, an extreme overreaction."
The comments made by our former community manager stand in stark contrast to our values as a game development studio. <1/2>
— Turtle Rock Studios (@TurtleRock) May 1, 2014
We sincerely apologize for his remarks and in no way endorse or support those views. <2/2>
— Turtle Rock Studios (@TurtleRock) May 1, 2014
When Turtle Rock Studios' Twitter account decided to post an official statement on the situation, referring to Olin as its "former community manager," many of the replies to the tweets were either oblivious to the situation or in support of Olin. Despite this, Olin claims it only made matters worse as he struggled to keep up with his Twitter mentions and provide proper context. "They didn't need to issue a statement," he said. "If they really believed I was somehow misrepresenting the organisation — absent of any real outrage — they didn't have to make a big public thing at all. All the statement they issued served to accomplish was igniting outrage — it was igniting outrage and further perpetuating this innuendo; this innuendo that '@JD_2020' had said something immoral or meriting termination."
Olin: 'Where my previous employers and partners were most at fault is this immaturity in management [...] that led to very poor and hasty decisions — decisions driven by belief in that sensationalism, instead of trust in reality.'
Despite how things transpired, Olin, in a statement he provided to multiple outlets, encouraged people to still purchase Evolve when it launches this fall; a sentiment he's not doubling back on.
"There are still a lot of people at Turtle Rock and at 2K that I really care about and who are really good at what they do," he said. "People are like 'You should be more pissed!' and believe me, no one's more pissed than I am — not because I was deprived of anything — what pissed me off was I was well on my way to building an incredible community in the eSports ecosystem that I'm qualified to build based on my entire career's worth of experience. So many pieces were falling into the right places — it was the best work of my career. To have the rug pulled out from under it over something so petty is just really disappointing and indescribably frustrating for a person like me."
As frustrated as Olin is, he sees his situation as far from unique, making matters all the more tragic from his standpoint. "I don't want people debating over my employment status; that's not important," he reiterated. "I want people debating over outrage culture, fear of political correctness, and the erosion of individuality. […] Ultimately, I hope companies start working with, and standing by their employees against outrage culture to correct any misunderstandings that arise from incomplete context. At its worst case, what I said was only bad when context was misunderstood. [...] Had my point actually been in support of things Sterling was saying, then by all means, distance yourself from that sort of toxicity."
Even with the knowledge of how things transpired, Olin claims he wouldn't take back the series of tweets that cost him his job. "Do I regret saying what I said? No," he explained. "I believe that it was important for me to have participated in that conversation — for social media managers to be participating in global conversations — in a way that wasn't just jumping on the bandwagon of hate and giving into the sensationalism. [...] It's saying something unique that actually drives value to the conversation. [...] If another Donald Sterling thing happened down the line, I'd be able to manage that better."
Josh Olin is still optimistic. "I'm inherently a positive guy, so I'm excited at the prospects of what comes next," he said. "At the moment, I continue to operate my independent consultancy where I provide social media, community, and eSports strategy services to the entertainment world. Hopefully that keeps the lights on as long as they need to before I decide what my next big move is."
Looking at Olin's original tweet, the post came out to exactly 140 characters, the maximum count allowed. Perhaps Twitter just isn't the place for important conversations. It's difficult to resist jumping into a conversation about a topic you have a strong opinion on, but had Josh Olin voiced his opinion on the Donald Sterling situation on a platform that allowed him to fully articulate his thoughts, maybe he would still be employed by Turtle Rock Studios.
Brian Shea is the Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of VideoGameWriters.com, a freelance writer for multiple major publications, and an awful joke teller on Twitter.