Dabe Alan / Dan Amrich

Slings and arrows: behind the scenes with Activision’s public face

Slings and arrows: behind the scenes with Activision’s public face

The video game industry is much smaller than it may at first seem, and the longer you stick around the more people you’ll find popping up in interesting places. Dan Amrich got his start writing freelance articles for outlets as diverse as Country Guitar Magazine and Time Out New York. His video game infamy took firm hold when he began writing for GamePro magazine, as Dan Electro and Bad Hare. After years of writing about video games for a variety of publications, he began his new job, one that seems much more challenging that simply delivering video game news.

Dan Amrich is the community manager for Activsion, a publisher and developer that often runs neck and neck with EA to be one of the most… how to put this nicely…. controversial companies in the gaming business. It’s an intricate job, one that is very different than most community management positions in video games. He’s also very good at it.

The freedom of being official

I wanted Amrich to describe his job in simple terms, and it turns out his work is a combination of many soft skills. He also absorbs as much as he transmits. “Most people only see community managers at the studio level, but I work out of the corporate HQ in Santa Monica and try to get the word out about what all the studio community managers are doing,” Amrich told the Penny Arcade Report. “On a daily basis, I spend a lot of time on Twitter, Facebook, and email trying to answer questions. Sometimes I have information to broadcast, but a I do a lot of listening, then bring that info back to the mothership. It’s a proper two-way street.”

He also explained that Activision has him on a very long leash, something that is rare in the world of community managers. “Activision admires what Major Nelson does for Microsoft and wanted a similar representative, so my role was directly inspired by his – but since I have a game journalism background, I was allowed to set up my outlet to play to my strengths,” Amrich explained.

“They also wanted me to be mostly independent, so OneOfSwords.com is not linked from Activision.com, and I don’t have to put my blogs or podcasts in for any sort of approval. I told them early on that I would be talking about non-Activision games – like, I’m not going to hide the fact that I’m a fan of Rock Band or Mortal Kombat, because I don’t want to be a salesman, I just want to be a gamer that lives in the same world as everybody else.”

He describes his work as running an “official fan site” for Activision, complete with thoughts on the wider gaming industry. “Even though Activision pays me, and I don’t ever try to deny or obscure that fact, I am given editorial freedom that surprises even me. That’s the primary draw for me enjoying the job: I still get to be me and I get to write and podcast like I did when I was in the real media.”

Dealing with the hate

Anyone who writes about games in any capacity is used to dealing with the nastier side of comments and e-mails, but doing so on Activision’s payroll makes you an even easier target. I’ve long enjoyed watching Amrich write long, interesting posts directly aimed at critics of the games and franchises of Activision, including a fascinating rebuttal to the idea that Call of Duty doesn’t change. His ability to directly engage angry members of the community while also putting a limit to the bullshit he’s willing to take is a fine line.

“It often seems like the rest of the Internet is determined to find something wrong with everything they see, so I like to challenge the negativity if I doubt that it has a rational basis,” Amrich told me. “If you’re hating for hate’s sake, logic often defuses it.”

“I have come to realize that people act nasty because they are emotionally invested in whatever it is that has them pissed off – they yell because they care. They hear about, say, a business decision, and they immediately connect the dots between something that might be a really smart or necessary business choice and the emotional investment they have in the game from that publisher. That’s not necessarily an excuse for not treating another human being without basic respect, and I wish people wouldn’t yell as their primary form of communication, but I at least understand it,” Amrich said. “People see something they perceive as a threat to their gaming happiness and they lash out on instinct. I would like to let them know they don’t have to lash out to be heard.”

So what happens when a nasty message gets a calm, measured response? Even back in his days dealing with hate from magazine articles, treating trolls like people can make the monsters feel surprisingly human.

“A surprising amount of time, I would get these sheepish replies like ‘I didn’t realize that anybody actually read the mail’ and ‘I’m sorry, I was tired and had a bad day, I want to apologize for my mail.’ And that usually turned into good conversations where I actually was able to see through the rage to find out what it was that they cared about,” Amrich told the Penny Arcade Report. “So while some trolls are just there to watch the world burn and abuse whoever they can, some of them really are screaming because they feel something they love is threatened. They want to be heard and acknowledged, and I can only acknowledge them if I engage. I have my limits and I won’t take abject abuse, but if there’s a kernel of legitimacy under the rage, I’ll try to dig it out and move beyond the insults.”

“I will admit that on bad days, I swear at the screen as I type polite responses… some days are much tougher than others, and I’ve gained a lot of patience through this job. It is tough not to take the bait or internalize the negativity. I do sometimes come home and just vent to my wife, who is also a gamer and my podcast co-host, so she sort of lets me ramble and then says ‘So, dinner?’ I think I’m getting better at learning what to give attention and what to just let slide.”

How do you measure community management?

The position of community manager is hard to describe. Many companies handle that role differently, and I was curious if Activision has instituted any metrics for Amrich’s success. “There is a colossal amount of trust in play. My boss really believes in the project and my value, but the metrics are tough – there’s no ROI on ‘I talked with the community today,’” he explained.

“I write up weekly reports on what I’m doing, I tell people what I’m hearing from the community, I track my blog and podcast traffic, my Twitter followers, Klout and Kred scores, things like that—but there’s nothing I can show that proves ‘Good vibes are up slightly across the Internet’ or ‘Fewer people used Activision’s name as a punchline today.’ It’s all anecdotal. My boss just sees the value in having me as a resource for that ongoing conversation. It makes sense on a human being and social level, but it’s not something you can easily prove.”

He also provides another valuable service: he’s able to step outside of Activision’s corporate culture and let them know when something could go wrong. “Being the guy who explains how gamers see Activision to Activision is part of my role. I still think, act, and react as a gamer first; the Activision Kool-Aid is delicious, but it’s not all I drink,” he explained.

“I’m actively asked for my input so that Activision doesn’t accidentally say or do anything that makes people more angry, and I’m happy to say that I have been able to help change course on a few things that I think would have been problems. But amidst all the Twitter replies and trolling, being the translator to and from gamers makes me feel like I am actually doing something valuable—I’m helping each side understand the other.”

One last question: favorite Activision game? “It’s become a running joke on the podcast, but I bring up the 1997 PC game Interstate ‘76 whenever humanly possible. Pitfall! was the first game I bought with my own money as a kid, but I76 is my favorite Activision game of all time,” he said. “It’s my editorial choice to talk about the games I love, even if they are 15 years old and VASTLY UNDERAPPRECIATED, so I am constantly looking for excuses to ram that one down everybody’s throat.”