Regulate Online Influencers, Community Specialists and Game Ambassadors
Thomas Cheung (AKA Elvine), an employee of Hi-Rez game studio and a partnered Twitch streamer, was arrested last weekend in Brookhaven, Georgia in connection an ongoing child sex investigation. Police charged him with using a computer service “to seduce, solicit, lure or entice” a minor, which is a felony in the state. Cheung is a prominent member of the World of Warcraft community and is generally a known "influencer" in specific gaming quarters. As a result of the ongoing investigation and charges, his corporate sponsors, SteelSeries, have withdrawn their support and Hi-Rez studios are distancing themselves from Cheung who was a community specialist for both Smite and Paladins Strike. Obviously, it is not appropriate to speculate and comment unduly on an ongoing criminal investigation, but I would like to articulate some wider points. With an issue as harrowing and sensitive as child sex abuse, it is understandable to tread cautiously and choose one’s words wisely. We certainly wish to avoid arbitrary “knee jerk” reactions as these tend to do more harm than good. But we must not shy away from big issues such as this although it is something that the gaming industry has been doing for too long.
In real life, any significant gathering of people sadly attracts criminality and predators. In the UK the Police regularly remind people attending events such as carnivals, concerts, or even demonstrations to be mindful. Furthermore, it has also become apparent that organisations that deal with people, especially those who are marginalised or vulnerable, similarly attract of percentage of individuals whose motivations are far from good. Hence, we saw last year a scandal involving the Red Cross and a small percentage of their aid workers who were also exploiting sexually the very people they were supposed to be helping. And of course, any social or sporting activity that involves children has to be especially careful as to who they employ. I myself have volunteered to do charitable work in the past and had to give plenty of advance notice to afford the organisers time to do suitable background checks.
Due to some very hard and tragic lessons in recent years, dealing with others or representing an organisation in a public environment has to be regulated, policed and reviewed to ensure the safety and welfare of all parties. We as a society have reticently grown to accept this. Many of us don’t want to think the worst of our teachers, social workers, sports coaches or scout leaders by default, but it is irresponsible not to make provision to ensure that predators don’t slip through the net. But although this sort of social auditing has become common place in the real world, it still seems to be neglected, overlooked or in some instance deliberately sidelined online. Gaming and other internet-based leisure industries still maintain a close and profitable relationship with third party “influencers”. Tapping into popular social media personalities and having them become ambassadors for your game or service is immensely beneficial. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that many of these affiliate staff are not in anyway scrutinised, checked or held to any sort of standard or accountability. Such a rash policy is inevitably going to end in tears. Perhaps it already has and we’re simply going to find out when the fallout becomes public knowledge.
Big business seldom does the right thing as a default choice. Yes, there are a few examples of ethical companies out there, but I am not disposed towards thinking this is the norm. Far from it. Which is why in the real world we have regulatory bodies, legislation and processes that ensure that business does the right thing, whether they like it or not. It is time that similar institutions and procedures are introduced to ensure that online businesses and communities are held to a similar degree of accountability. It is bad enough that a games developer can “unwittingly” associates itself with Twitch Streamer who turns out to be a racist, because they could be bothered to invest in a more formal employment relationship which would guarantee security checks. But potentially enabling a sexual predator for similar reasons of “fiscal prudence” and general indifference, a disgraceful nadir in free market irresponsibility. And for those “libertarians” that eschew any governance on principle, consider this. If the games industry doesn’t get its house in order voluntarily or embrace measured changes, they may face the worse kind of panic legislation and witch hunt culture next time something really bad happens. If you make money off the backs of a community that you cultivate and nurture, you have a duty of care, especially so if that community includes minors. It infuriates me that online business, especially gaming is always playing catch up due to having dodged real-world rules. Redress the balance and proactively put this situation right.