Rachel Rubin Franklin has come full circle. She worked on Electronic Arts’ The Sims 4 franchise for years, leaving for Facebook to run social VR. Now she has rejoined EA as the senior vice president of Positive Play.
It may sound like a vague job compared to running a studio, but the Positive Play task is an important one for EA, and Franklin believes it is essential to creating strong communities around EA’s games. She will lead a group that will execute EA’s strategy for Positive Play, and she will partner with workers all over the company to ensure that they integrate its principles into the core of EA’s business.
EA published its Positive Play Charter in June and rolled out regulations across the company. It has begun integrating reporting functions in all of its games, so players can notify EA when something has gone wrong. It added messaging for zero tolerance for hate speech in all major games launched this year (Madden 21, UFC 4, FIFA 21, NHL 21, and Star Wars: Squadrons).
Franklin’s hire will build on this. She can further develop a player council that EA created to help figure out the right guidelines and tools to combat these problems. EA is a member of the Fair Play Alliance, and it has escalation policies to deal with online harm. It also provides training for teams working directly in online communities. Franklin will report to Chris Bruzzo, the executive vice president for marketing, commercial, and Positive Play.
I haven’t asked Franklin if she has ever cheated at games or launched a DDoS attack against someone who beat her in a match. But hopefully not. I did get to talk to her about a lot of other things.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Above: Rachel Rubin Franklin is the new head of Positive Play at EA.
GamesBeat: What’s the reason for going back to Electronic Arts, and what is your new role going to be like?
Rachel Rubin Franklin: It’s the new role, definitely. I’m particularly passionate about this space. I love being at EA, but I’m also very excited about this role. It’s a new role for the company. It takes advantage of all my background. We’re very excited to be focusing on Positive Play across the company. I started as a gamer and I’ve worked on games for the majority of my career. Putting those things together in terms of having communities that feel great, focusing on how to keep communities inclusive and safe and balanced and positive, this is an area of passion for me.
I was thinking back to my days in the arcade, as an arcade rat with my rolls of quarters, playing all my games. Just the feeling of being in that space, feeling that was where I could lose myself and be with other people and have a community. Those were my people. You think about all the transition into being able to go online and find people, having that same kind of flow and that bond, even with people around the world. It’s a special thing. When it’s right, when you feel like you can be in a space where you’re welcome, where you feel safe, where people are playing great games well with you, there’s nothing like it. It’s important for us to take down the barriers and pave the way for people to have that experience, to have that fun.
GamesBeat: What responsibilities does this include? What’s the day-to-day going to be like?
Franklin: Well, I’ve been in the job for two weeks. It will take more of a holistic approach to this space than we have previously, which has been more of the portfolio approach, a game by game basis. We’ll build tools that we can use across the company. We’ll build principles and frameworks we can use across the company because there are certain things we won’t stand for as a company — hate speech, play that isn’t fair, and so on.
That said, we need to talk to each game team about their respective community. It’s important that we’re listening to our players and what they need. That’s going to be very different for a Battlefield than it will be for a Sims. There will be a different amount of competition and smack talk that makes sense. It’s fun to say, “I’m gonna do something [expletive] when I run into you in a match.” But it has to be appropriate for the age, for the context. It has to make sense for that community.
GamesBeat: You have a kind of carrot-and-a-stick for gamers.
Franklin: There’s a bit of both, yeah. Ideally, we’re communicating to players what the expectations are for being in that community. That comes from the players themselves, and they can reinforce that community themselves. But there have to be some consequences for being a really bad actor. We can’t tolerate that. It creates toxicity in a community that’s unacceptable.
GamesBeat: It reminds me of the approach EA had on competitive play. They had people like Peter Moore running it horizontally across the company, to highlight the importance of the role and enforcing it across all of the studios. There’s much more thinking about esports in all the studios now.
Franklin: Right. The idea of having a role that’s thinking about this as a space — when I wake up I’ll be thinking about Positive Play, and my team will be focused on that. To your point, it brings extra weight to this as an area of importance for the company, simply by having this as a focus.
GamesBeat: How does it contrast with the role you had at Facebook? Were you doing social VR there most of the time?
Franklin: Yeah, that was mainly social VR. It feeds into a long history of roles where I’ve dealt with different types of communities, different ages. I made kids’ games at Activision way back in the day. I made games that were more hardcore, and on different platforms. I’ve worked on everything from text adventures to VR. It’s given me a well-rounded view of different types of communities, different ways that people will engage with each other, and potentially different ways that they’ll try to exploit platforms and community features.
We’re gamers. We like to test things. We like to see what boundaries we can hit. But generally, people want to go and have fun and connect with other people who are sharing that experience with them. I’ve had a pretty well-rounded career when it comes to dealing with different types of player bases. That feeds right into it.
GamesBeat: Was there anything interesting you learned in your four years at Facebook on this front, as far as how they look at some of the same problems?
Franklin: Human beings are the same beings everywhere. Again, it’s the context they’re in, whether it’s being in a VR headset and having more degrees of freedom to connect, or whether it’s through a chat system, or posting something on a Sims gallery. It’s just different ways to interact. People find ways to connect with each other in those different formats. People will also find ways to try to annoy each other in different formats. It’s definitely specific to the platform and the IP and the age of the players. All of those things contribute to a specific player base and how they connect.
How badly can we behave?
Above: Battlefield V is one of EA’s multiplayer games that can have bad player behavior.
GamesBeat: I get a sense that fan communities are so different among varying games. With Mass Effect, it feels like everybody’s a critic. The fans want the games made a certain way, and they get very ornery when EA doesn’t announce a new game is coming. Battlefield might be up there in the same realm. But something like the Sims feels far different as a community. Do you think they present different challenges?
Franklin: I want to be clear that my group is not inserting ourselves into a specific community. EA community teams, the different developers, the different studios do a phenomenal job of connecting with their player base. Players are passionate. They want certain things. They want to express themselves. They want to connect directly with developers. That has to continue.
When you’re asking whether there are similar problems across the board, absolutely. If someone creates a username that’s offensive, that has some kind of hate speech in it, we won’t tolerate that across the board. That has to be handled. There are values we have as a company, and all of our spaces need to be free of hate, period. That’s the kind of thing where, if my group can help, throughout the company, to give different developer teams tools to make sure we’re looking at all these usernames to make sure that they don’t have hate speech in them, that’s something where we’d help develop that. But as far as inserting ourselves into the conversation, that’s not the intention.
GamesBeat: It sounds like monitoring things like that would involve machine learning, AI, or automation. Is that one of the answers to trying to police so many millions of fans?
Franklin: I wouldn’t use the word “police,” but yes, we have to use automation to make things make sense. My group won’t be developing all the software. We have large groups working on that kind of thing. We have experts in that type of automation engineering those kinds of tools. But my group will certainly be helping with that, helping to determine what we’re looking for. What are we hearing from players? What are we seeing ourselves? How do we make our values show through in the work that we’re building and the tools we’re building?
GamesBeat: Is there a reason it’s called “Positive Play” as a role?
Franklin: It’s that whole idea of what I was speaking to earlier. The goal here is for people to get to their fun in the easiest way possible. If we can remove the barriers, if we can pave the way to people enjoying themselves in our games and connecting with other people in a healthy, safe way, then that’s the goal. It’s a very positive goal.
Best methods and judgment calls
GamesBeat: What are the best methods in this space for leading to that result?
Franklin: Where the really interesting, creative solutions come in is on a per-game basis, things created by the developers. If you look at the Apex Legends ping system, it’s so elegant. It’s an easy way for people to communicate with each other without having to use a microphone. It’s a powerful way of communicating, and through the elegance of the design, it also solves for some chat problems. That’s the kind of thing that — the creativity of the game design lends itself to both clean interaction, but also a powerful tool in the game. I think we’ll see more of that.
Most people don’t set out to be mean to each other, I think. It’s not generally how people want to behave. They want to go and have fun in a game. When they take it too far and you tell them so, many of those people will say, “Hey, thanks for telling me. I won’t do that again.” It’s surprising to think, “Oh, I just had to let them know what the operating rules were for this particular community.” You’d be surprised how many people just say, “OK, let’s go have fun.”
Above: Apex Legends’ ping system is a creative way to deal with nastiness in voice chat.
GamesBeat: What would your reaction be? The problem in both Apex Legends and Warzone, games I play, is that you can ping a spot you want to land with your group, somewhere on the map, and people can vote yes or no. But even if two of the three people want to go one place, one can just go off somewhere else, which tends to ruin the experience. This player wants to play by himself, on his own, rather than being on a team. Is there a way to force team play, to make that majority vote win?
Franklin: Taking a step back, how that would relate particularly to my group — the question would be, are players happy or unhappy? Are there many people out there like you finding that this is a real problem for the gameplay? Are they expressing that? And then exposing that or sharing that with the game team and having them work on a creative solution, if it’s a big enough problem that it’s affecting gameplay.
That’s kind of the path for how my team will work with developers. We’re a creative bunch of people. We’ll definitely have solutions. But the idea is that the creatives inside the game teams will have the best solutions to figuring out that type of situation, where it’s inherent to how the game is being played. It could be adding more variables to matchmaking. Preferences make a big difference when you’re in a game.
GamesBeat: For things like the Sims, do you have some ideas as you come back into it?
Franklin: The Sims is a different challenge because people interact with it in a different way than a multiplayer co-op situation. There’s a lot of creative expression there. It’s another challenge. A lot has to do with visuals. Naming things, that’s pretty straightforward when you look at how to keep things positive in terms of text, how people name their families for example. But you can certainly do some interesting, creative things with how you build a house, right? Where you place foliage on your property, things like that, and how you share that to the gallery.
It’s a big area to tackle. The Sims community is a very positive community, which is really nice. It was a joy to work with the Sims community. They’re good, passionate people. But still, you have folks that are doing things that are unsavory. The ability to have a reporting system that allows you to say, “Hey, this isn’t OK for this community,” and build in a flow that makes sense, with consequences that make sense, that’s important for every game. The Sims just has a different structure, something that’s far more visual, and with a lot of user-generated content.
Above: EA has zero-tolerance for hate speech in its games.
GamesBeat: What kind of conversations got you back into this?
Franklin: Talking with the executive team at large, really. Understanding — is this an area where we say we want to have these values and make them happen, or is this something where we as a company are really putting energy and dedication behind it? I asked a lot of hard questions to make sure this is something EA is prioritizing, and it is. That was an important thing for me to explore. I feel like my background culminates here. It all comes together to make this a good fit for me, all the things I care about.
I’ll be moving into the company under Chris Bruzzo’s organization. His title will be EVP, marketing, commercial, and positive play. That’s another expansion of our executive team. It’s important to know that this isn’t a moment in time where EA is flipping a switch. Oh, now this is important. This has been building for quite some time. The change is giving it a holistic group executive presence, to be able to drive the initiatives throughout the company.
GamesBeat: How large a staff do you think this kind of job needs? How many people are needed to help affect the whole company?
Franklin: I’m not entirely certain, other than just a gut feeling. At this point, it’s important to not be so small that it’s just a consulting group telling people, “Do this.” We want to have meaningful partnerships throughout the company, with the different game teams and different products. We’ll have external-facing work as well as internal-facing. It’s important to communicate outward as well, with our players. It’s important for us to continue partnerships that we have, making sure that our games are representative of inclusivity as well as being fair, as well as being safe. There’s great work being done outside of the company that we want to take advantage of and make sure we’re partnering in a deep way.
GamesBeat: Were there particular products you focused on at Facebook, like Facebook Horizon or Oculus Venues?
Franklin: Both of those were in my group. They had their specific challenges.
GamesBeat: How many years have you been in the game industry?
Franklin: If you lump Facebook under “interactive entertainment,” since the early ‘90s. I think I was employee 65 at the new Activision back in the day. Before that, I made full-motion video CD-ROM games for a brief period of time. I’ve been at it for a long time. My career has taken different turns, depending on the platform. At one point I had my own company. We build a website for the Learning Company around ClueFinders, an online clubhouse for ClueFinders. A new format, it’s on the web, it’s for kids, what’s this now? I’ve been doing this in different formats for many years.
GamesBeat: The Fair Play Alliance, does that fall into this category as well?
Franklin: That partnership? Yes.
Above: Rachel Rubin Franklin once worked on The Sims.
GamesBeat: I wonder about the scale of the problem. Microsoft talks every now and again about how many accounts it has to ban, and how often. I don’t know what the scale of this challenge is like. Does it seem daunting in that way?
Franklin: I’m optimistic about this in terms of people wanting to just go and have fun in their games. The percentage of people who are “bad actors,” who are trying to do harm, is fairly low. What you’re describing is potentially an automated solution. If somebody is creating lots of accounts, for example.
GamesBeat: Like Facebook and the election right now, the couple million ads they had to block.
Franklin: I do feel it’s a different ball of wax for games than it is for something like Facebook and other social platforms. But we’ll see. So far I believe the work that EA has done to this point has been good, has been effective. The idea is to continue that and do it in a more holistic way than it’s been to date.
GamesBeat: Does this go hand in hand with diversity efforts as well?
Franklin: It does. Our games should feel inclusive. If I feel like I don’t belong, that’s a problem. That’s not paving the way to fun for me. That’s making me feel like I don’t belong. That can happen if you go into a situation where you’re a woman, and people start saying things to you because they hear a certain type of voice. Or if there are racial slurs being thrown around. That’s horrible. It’s not right. Those are all things that will make you feel like you’re not welcome in that environment. That’s a huge part of it.
Being able to create an avatar that represents you. That was a huge deal in the Sims, and it continues to be a huge deal in the Sims. It’s not rooting out bad actors. It’s just about feeling welcome. Somebody thought about making sure that I could represent an avatar that feels like me here. That’s a big, important piece of positive play as well.
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