Lessons in PR with THQ Nordic

In late February, another videogame company embarrassed itself in public. I am sure this will happen again, and that everything I have to say about this will be entirely relevant to whatever the new controversy is, but I wanted to articulate some thoughts that have been bouncing around anyway. This time, I’m talking about the “blunder” wherein THQ Nordic took the time out of their day to, for whatever reason, hold an AMA on 8chan, the infamous message board known for coordinating harassment and stalking campaigns against various blackthe sheep developers, and, allegedly, for linking out to sites that host child pornography.

I say “blunder” in quotes not because I personally think this was a commendable thing for them to do, because obviously it’s all reprehensible, but because from THQ Nordic management’s perspective, it seems clear to me that they have consciously selected the sort of audience they want to have, and by publicly announcing that they chose one of the scummiest forums on the internet to host an AMA they were just making explicit what already seemed like a natural and pragmatic marketing decision, howsoever their CEO Lars Wingefors makes apologetic claims to the contrary.

Overtures were already being made to a certain audience of gamers in 2013, when Deep Silver attempted to promote their game, Dead Island: Riptide by offering a bloodied torso in a bikini as a collector’s item (although, to be fair, THQ Nordic would only acquire Deep Silver in 2018.) The company received flak from the media, and promptly issued a very sincere-sounding apology not unlike the one recently given by Wingefors.  For another, possibly more damning example, take THQ Nordic’s decision to acquire Warhorse, makers of Kingdom Come: Deliverance. The game’s creator, Daniel Vávra, made comments in defense of Gamergate and appears to espouse white supremacist beliefs that are also present in the game. This is cause for consternation both for employees in the field and for any person who plays games, pays attention to the industry and happens to have an actual human soul. But for a company like THQ, which faced bankruptcy and liquidation in 2012 until the trademark was acquired by Nordic Games in 2014, this is is actually a pretty sober business decision.

According to a Polygon piece from around the time of this latest incident, THQ Nordic delivered a masterclass in blowing up your brand, THQ Nordic’s PR and marketing manager Philipp Brock took “full responsibility” for the decision after the company received criticism for their decision, and in Homer Simpson-like fashion claimed ignorance about the history of the message board and accepted his failure of due diligence. The author of the piece, Michael Futter, argued that Brock’s relative newness to PR may have been a contributing factor in what he calls an “unforced error.” The piece concludes on a series of suggestions for the self-sabotaging THQ Nordic to dig itself out of this new hole (the piece was written prior to the apology from the CEO). That’s well and good, but I’m not convinced that the company really needs this sort of advice, nor do I think this is really the sort of thing that can be resolved by appealing to the morality of corporate executives and scolding them to Do Better.

Most game companies—well, most companies—are pretty adept at co-opting social justice language in service of their profit motive. Sometimes, the agenda is actually more insidious, such as when a company like Intel or Microsoft spearheads a drive to, say, get more girls of colour into programming, the ultimate purpose of which is to drive down the cost of labour because, ultimately, the market remains steadfast in the assumption that some kinds of people are worth more for their work than others.

I don’t say this to rationalize THQ Nordic’s behaviour or to pretend that it’s somehow ok, but to help draw out the larger context that they are not an aberration from some respectable norm within the games industry. Capital and fascism always make fast friends, THQ Nordic has just opted to lean into a more openly right-wing demographic than Microsoft, and games culture, which harbours quite a lot of angry young men with reactionary beliefs, affords them the comfort of occupying that niche, usually without a ton of pushback.

Games critic Frank Cifaldi, to his credit, did make an attempt at signalling several of THQ Nordic’s corporate sponsors, such as Disney (a cartoonishly evil company in its own right), Nintendo and others, appealing to them to stop doing business with THQ Nordic. THQ Nordic’s official Twitter account did, eventually, pull down the tweet linking to the AMA after a day, and I suppose that could be counted as a small victory. Then again, I can’t help but feel that the whole thing serves as a stunt for THQ Nordic, first to excite the company’s base and then to anger them (Cifaldi’s mentions were full of aggrieved nerds irate at him in defense of the company. Imagine the Pinkertons, except they do it for the love of the game.). This whole shitshow ultimately just ends up solidifying the loyalty these nerds have to the brand, and it’s a safe bet that since most people aren’t on Twitter, or at least don’t care much about all this drama, it won’t hurt sales much at all. It may even help them.

I can’t help but think back to the Sean Hannity Keurig Incident, in which the ho-hum coffee machine company was pressured, for a time, into pulling their advertising from Hannity’s Fox News show following his comments defending former Alabama chief jurist Roy Moore against multiple accusations of sexual assault. What followed was a bunch of pea-brained boomer conservatives filming themselves destroying their coffee makers in various ways (Hannity then offered to give away 500 machines to make up for the loss). Ultimately, Keurig apologized for “taking sides”, Hannity caped for them by claiming that they were duped by “left-wing media”, and eventually the outrage wore off. Statistics show that Keurig machine sales were actually dipping prior to this incident, and it’s hard to say how much of an effect this situation had on sales—their recent merger with Dr Pepper may have had more to do with this—but Keurig Dr Pepper’s net earnings for 2018 actually increased 76% compared to the year before. In any case, they weren’t deeply hurt by it.

There are lots of examples of this sort of thing happening, as Alex Nichols points out in his essay, A brief history of conservative boycotts, and it reveals a dynamic where companies know they can always play both sides and come out making even more money in the end (there are more fruitful avenues for advertisement than Fox News, anyway).

THQ Nordic doesn’t have to play both sides, exactly, but they can behave like they’ve been cowed somewhat into removing offensive material after the damage has already been done. This is far more often the case with games companies than with, say, coffee companies, since they have enough of a cultivated and vocal audience of chuds who can always be relied on to defend them against the prying eye of basic human decency. Even if this audience represents a minority of their overall customer base, they’re like sleeper agents, always ready to awaken the second someone utters the codewords, “Please don’t hold an AMA on a website full of alleged pedophiles.”

I’m not necessarily opposed to this form of consumer pressure, or of boycotts if they’re organized and targeted (such as BDS), but those within the games industry who are repulsed by this sort of behaviour need a more powerful weapon to combat it. If you’ve followed me or my writing at all you probably know where I’m going with this: unions. Thankfully, there’s been a lot of positive momentum in this regard. As time goes on, employee surveys from the IGDA and elsewhere show strong support for the creation of an industry-wide game developer’s union. 

Recently, the advocacy group Game Workers Unite has made waves, most notably at the last GDC, and the UK chapter recently formed officially as a union. But there’s still a lot of apprehension and resistance this idea, and it remains an uphill battle for game workers generally. But it’s absolutely necessary as a means of organizing meaningful mass opposition to specific companies like THQ Nordic and their overpaid CEOs, and to the wider and deeper exploitative practices of the industry generally. Work stoppages, strikes, real calls for accountability—yes, even in the form of targeted boycotts—are necessary to even begin to dismantle the 100-storey wall of shit that surrounds games culture and obscures these companies from daylight. This may not stop all the bloody torsos and AMAs on blighted websites, but it can hurt management in their wallets, and make this sort of embarrassment less common in the long run.