By Matt Akers
Annette Gonzalez spends most of her work day in the public eye. As part of the community management team at Harmonix, the Cambridge-based game studio known for franchises like Rock Band, Dance Central, and Guitar Hero, it’s her job to publicly represent some of the most recognizable brands in gaming. She absolutely loves it. Between testing unreleased games, traveling to consumer shows, and being the go-to expert on Harmonix’s upcoming Fantasia: Music Evolved, she’s the first to admit to having one of the best jobs around.
Annette and I met at 1369 Coffee House in Cambridge’s Central Square to chat about the continually changing role of community managers. She also shed some light on her two-year stint at Game Informer magazine, the perks of working in the Boston game scene, and a few of the skills required to be an effective community manager.
Matt: How’d you get into the business of video games?
Annette: I’ve had an interest in video games since I was a wee child. I remember getting an original Game Boy, the giant chunky one, and a free first issue of Nintendo Magazine when I was about eight years old. I always read gaming magazines cover to cover. That was how I learned about games growing up.
I’m from Chicago originally. I studied journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I covered video games for a local magazine. [After college] I wound up working for Office Max corporate, but I was also doing freelance writing on the side for AbleGamers, a website that focuses on making games accessible to people with disabilities. I got connected to them from one of my college professors, who taught a video game design course that I took. She was sort of my “in” to the industry, and I’m very thankful for her. She took me to a convention when I was in college, which helped me write some articles and network, which is key.
M: You originally wanted to be a journalist?
A: Journalism seemed like a natural fit for me. I’d been good at writing from a young age, and writing about games seemed like a natural extension from that. It was something I had been reading about for years and had a crazy encyclopedic knowledge about. Eventually, I got to go to the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in college as a writer for AbleGamers. That was my first experience of, “Whoa, I need to be in this industry somehow.”
I met [then Game Informer editor] Meagan Marie at GDC and asked for all kinds of advice. She was very sweet and helped me a bunch, and when [Game Informer] was hiring, she passed my information along. So, it’s that networking thing again. If I hadn’t spoken to her, I would have never found out about [the opening]. It all came together in a weird way, which it doesn’t for most people. I was really fortunate.
M: What was your experience like at Game Informer?
A: Game Informer was a great opportunity. I got to travel to different events, I got to expand the kind of writing I was doing. Everyone on staff at the time got to do a little bit of everything. We did news coverage, features, all kinds of stuff. That was really good for me, and it helped with my writing and communications a lot.
The bigger part of it, though, was that it gave me exposure to developers for interviews, which [in turn] helped spark my interest in [game] development. I had always had some interest in it, but I wasn’t sure how I would ever get into a development studio. I assumed you had to be a programmer or engineer to actually make video games. I had none of those skills. [Then] I started noticing that a lot of people in games journalism were jumping into the development side as community managers. I had been taking on a little bit of a community manager role at Game Informer. I was dealing with comments, doing blog roundups, and reaching out to the creative community for regular features on people.
I eventually saw that Harmonix was looking for a community manager. I loved my colleagues at Game Informer; they were wonderful people. At the time, though, I thought, “This could be my chance to work in game development.” It was for a company that I loved and admired, and I also loved music games [like] Dance Central. I loved that game. Harmonix said, “We need a community manager for Dance Central” and I thought, “Oh, really? How convenient!”
M: What exactly does a community manager do?
A: There have always been community managers, people who moderate forums and do those sorts of things, but the role is changing. The first question I generally get when I say I’m a community manager is, “What does that even mean?” and it means a lot of different things, depending on where you work. I’m [technically] a product manager now, which is really new, but for all intents and purposes I’m still a community manager.
[At Harmonix,] my community management team and I wear a lot of different hats. We manage our games’ social pages like Facebook and Twitter. We manage the editorial calendars for our websites. We post new content to our websites, whether that be a press release, a behind-the-scenes look at a game feature, or a developer profile. We want to make sure that fans have a look inside the studio and get to see a little bit about the people who work there.
We also have a customer service role. People will often go to our Twitter and Facebook accounts to ask questions about a game. We’re usually the people to answer those questions. If, for whatever reason, it’s something beyond our expertise, we have the developers as a resource. Some people joke and call community managers “human meat shields.” We’re the people between the fan community and developers who help funnel information to the development team.
A: The fun thing about community management is that every day is different. Some days will be full of meetings, running from room to room, and then at some point I’ll find time to check social media accounts or email. Like a lot of jobs, I have a lot of meetings. But then there are some days when the development team [will be] showing off the latest version of a game, and I’ll get an hour, sometimes even two, just playing through it during the day. [Other] times people will stop by the studio to see a game, so I’ll show them a quick demo.
[Harmonix community management] is unique in a way because we are a team. If you need to be covered because you’re on the road or something, you have someone who understands the product as well as you do and has your back. Or, if you think of new ideas, you have the whole team to help you execute them. They’re like my family. We also travel together quite a bit. I’m really glad I love them, because traveling would get terrible real quick if I didn’t.
M: Do you have to be a community manager 24/7?
A: No. We all have our own personal Twitter accounts separate from our game accounts. Having an individual personality as a Harmonix person is really important to us. [Fans] will reach out to the Fantasia account, but they’ll also reach out to me personally with a Fantasia question because they know I’m managing those accounts. We want to give people that kind of visibility to [let them know] there are humans working behind these things.
M: What are some challenges of the job?
A: Sometimes people won’t like a piece of news you put out and will say really insensitive things. They’ll be rude to other people in the community, be rude to you, be rude to the developers. [It’s your job] to take that information and either respond in a democratic way or, ultimately, just ban people if they’re being out of control. You’re the community cop in a way, and you want to make sure there’s not a lot of negativity being thrown around. If someone is speaking out of line, using slurs, or being really disrespectful, just ban them. People might threaten you or say crazy things, but you [still have to] handle it in a professional, clean way.
M: What are some perks?
We go to a lot of consumer and press shows. We go to E3, we go to Comic-Con, we go to PAX, we do all of that stuff, and a lot of times we bring games that are still actively in development. We get to see in real time how people are responding to a game that’s not even out yet. People might say they don’t like this one thing, but they’re really into this other thing. We take all that feedback and give it to the developers.
A: I always have a good time at PAX East here [in Boston]. We have a lot of really great fans who come visit us, and it’s our chance to hang out with them. [Many of them] follow our accounts and watch all of our live streams, so they know us really well. If someone on the team loves Diet Coke, for instance, they’ll bring him tons of Diet Coke to events because they know it’s his thing. Or if I like coffee, someone will bring me coffee even though I don’t know them.
M: Isn’t that kind of weird?
A: Yeah, but that’s the thing you have to remember when you’re a public-facing person. People will pick up on this stuff. They’ll follow you, and they’ll know things about you. As long as no one tries to poison me, I think I’ll be OK.
M: How’s working in the Boston game scene?
A: Working in Boston rules, especially in the video game industry. There are regular developer meet-ups and things like Boston Post Mortem that give everyone an opportunity to get together and hear what companies are working on. You can walk around and network, you can listen to great talks. We have fantastic studios here. A lot of people expect most of the industry to be in California, but there are studios all over the place.
M: What are a few important skills for those looking to get into community management?
A: It’s important to be really good at writing and communicating. Attention to detail, too. You’re representing a company and a brand, so you want to make absolutely sure the information you’re putting out there is 100% correct. Being able to speak on camera and be a spokesperson is incredibly helpful, as well. You do a lot of demos, at least in the games industry, so you need to be able to articulate what your game is about, sometimes pretty concisely. Being on top of different social networks and thinking about ways you can expand your audience [is important]. And you have to have thick skin. The Internet can be a scary, hostile place. Hopefully, if you’re as fortunate as I am, you will not have to deal with that often.
M: Any juicy secrets about upcoming Harmonix projects?
A: No. Next question. [Laughs.] Soon.
M: OK, OK, but you have to leave us with something.
A: The biggest lesson I’ve learned as a community manager is, “Be nice to people on the Internet.” There’s always another human being on the other side, and you could very well ruin their day by saying something mean. Be nice to people on the Internet.
Matt Akers is a freelance journalist based in Boston. He writes about geek culture and works with a youth literacy project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Find him on Twitter @ScholarlyLad.
The State of Play blog, organized by MassDiGI, features posts by digital and video game industry insiders writing about creativity, innovation, research, and development in the Massachusetts digital entertainment and apps sectors. Follow along @Mass_DiGI.
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