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Co-Op Ed: #GamerGate, Game Journalism, and Ethics

For the past three weeks, the video game subculture has been experiencing a lot of turmoil regarding the state of “games journalism”, harassment, and everything in between. The controversy has prompted people from the indie development space, gaming enthusiast sites, and the diverse fan communities to make their positions abundantly clear through blog posts, Twitter hashtags, articles, YouTube videos, chat logs, forum threads, etc., raging into a storm of accusations, condemnations, exaltations and proclamations that continue unabated as of this Co-Op Ed’s publishing.

Considering the consequences on the industry as a whole this issue has already brought forth and will likely continue to bring about, the Kambyero Krew have decided to get the gang back together for more than a year’s absence to weigh in on the developments.

For a rundown of events that have transpired over the course of this three-week maelstrom of hate and debate, check out this Forbes article by Erik Kain.

Hold on to your butts, folks. This will be a long one.

[Co-Op Ed is a roundtable on relevant gaming news.]

Joseph Joseph: There are some fundamental things that are broken with the games industry and the culture it has fostered. There is the issue of ethics in how games are covered, and there’s the issue of how consumers self-identify with this particular interest. There have been numerous incidents that definitively show the shadier side of the gaming enthusiast press; Jeff Gerstmann’s firing from GameSpotRobert Florence quitting from Eurogamer, and even 25% of YouTubers admitting to have been paid to cover games.

There is certainly room to have insightful and civil discussions regarding the very real problem of publishers/developers and the media forming relationships that might be seen as crossing ethical boundaries. However, it’s hard to expect such a discussion playing out between the consumers, the producers and the press when the loudest voices shout out sweeping generalizations, exaggerated and/or unfounded accusations, and threats to silence the opposition, some of which have already been successful, unfortunately.

co op ed gamers are dead

“Gamers are dead” articles came out almost simultaneously at the tail end of August in response, with Dan Golding’s Tumblr post The End of Gamers serving as the jumping off point. Despite all their great points about the problems of the term “gamer” and its stereotypical image, some of them just had to include inflammatory rhetoric dripping with condescension, especially with Leigh Alexander’s piece. What could have been an opportunity to bridge the gap between the press and the fans that see the controversy but have yet to make a stance turned into more drawing of battle lines that serve to drum up even more conflict.

I do understand why it happened though. The bile many of the press receive regularly for voicing an opinion that’s disagreeable is sickening, and it’s grown exponentially since this whole thing exploded. It is very much human of them to start lashing out as well when they get a double whammy of their integrity being put into question while simultaneously getting a barrage of hateful comments and threats. Thankfully, there are more measured pieces that attempt to reach across the aisle.

#GamerGate began trending among those who see themselves on the other side of the issue, clamoring for a change in games journalism. Yet for every reasonable inquiry the hashtag seeks answers for, it’s all clouded by obscene behavior from others using the movement to justify their intolerance, with an almost unbelievable obsession in shutting up “social justice warriors” to the point that the FBI has reached out to help deal with the harassment.

I say “almost” because I’ve thought long and hard and read about why some video game enthusiasts just cannot stand critics who mention social issues when covering video games to the point that they want these “SJWs” gone from the industry (or worse).

There is some truth to the impassioned articles proclaiming the death of the gamer identity. The great majority of marketing for video games has long been targeted at a very specific demographic – young boys in families with enough purchasing power. The economic realities that faced the industry in the 80’s and pushed publishers to laser focus on that one demographic cannot be denied, as Tracie Lien observes in her Polygon piece No Girls Allowed.

co op ed marketing

However, what was once a justified attempt at keeping the industry afloat after the crash of ’83 became a crutch. Publishers and developers in the AAA space zeroed in on the easiest hooks to foster a fanbase that would be willing to spend a great deal of their money on this one hobby. Both games and their marketing sent messages of machismo and geekery, satisfying simple male power fantasies as well as promoting a sense of exclusivity.

This is further developed in communities, usually within major gaming websites, where opinions are either echoed or vehemently attacked that gamers form an increased sense of self-worth and/or aggressive behavior to be able to respond to others trashing their views.

I can understand that, as I was part of that audience, too. I was a nerd that also wished to be the bad boy that girls went gaga over. I was a nerd that also relished understanding how “deep” Final Fantasy Tactics and Metal Gear Solid were, being able to download the naked female hostage skins for Counter-Strike on the home PC when my friends could only play the game in Internet cafes, and for simply having a PlayStation 2.

Jeff Gerstmann made a great point about the label of “gamer” in the Giant Bomb PAX panel and his disdain for it. Anybody who self-identifies themselves solely with an interest is generally pretty terrible! When your love for a hobby takes over your life to the point that you would assume that label as your primary identity, it usually follows that you become out of touch with reality. It’s easy to become overly defensive of that “passion” when your sense of self-worth is tied into it so much, that any level of criticism is seen as an attack on your character and therefore met with hostility. More so when it’s coming from a party that has been deemed to be diametrically opposite to where you stand. In this case, it’s women, or anyone championing causes that are typically aligned with their interests like equality in portrayal of minorities.

The very nature of games themselves I believe make it easy to fall into that trap. I haven’t seen this level of toxicity in fan bases of other forms of art, whether it’s movies, music,  or even comics, a geek interest that also suffers from issues of equal representation. They can demand very high monetary and time investments relative to books or TV shows or other entertainment media, and competition is one of the defining aspects of many a popular video game, whether it’s in high score leaderboards or kill/death ratios or trophies/achievements unlocked.

Coupled with very targeted marketing that creates specific brands of energy drinks, holds big budget spectacles dedicated to advertising new and upcoming releases, and pats you on the head for getting this one console instead of another, you have a testosterone-fueled environment that builds this aggressive and exclusionary attitude.

We had Jack Thompson in the 90’s and early 00’s decrying the effects of video game violence on the youth. We still have politicians, organizations and mainstream news outlets quickly scapegoating the medium every time a connection is made with a disturbed young man running amok in public. This unfair and unfounded association has also made the core audience very defensive, quick to lump in any critical movement as part of those reactionary groups looking to censor video games.

And the games press is definitely at fault as well for propagating that environment, whether it’s through constant reportage that’s basically spun PR even for the most mediocre and cynical of games, an insistence on an ad-driven business model that influences what kind of content gets published, acceptance of merchandise or luxury travel packages for coverage of special events and access to private game demos, and simply maybe being a bit too chummy with the production side of the industry without any disclaimers in their published works talking about the games.

But then again, maybe it’s too much to ask for such sweeping change in the gaming press, as L. Rhodes so eloquently elaborates in an article on Medium. The “enthusiast press” as we know it cannot survive without having connections to pubs/devs and their ad dollars. The “journalistic press” some of us pine for can’t be achieved without accepting criticism that tackles social issues.


Mixka

Mix: What a steaming pile of shit this is, right? I should not be the only one who feels dirty and mired up to my ears in this excrement.

In all truth, I don’t want to talk about this issue. #GamerGate is ridiculous, over-inflated, and draining. Dealing with any form of hate is draining. It is both physically and mentally taxing.

With the way things stand now, there is zero chances of changing anyone’s mind regarding this issue. You’re either on the side of common sense or the side of complete utter fucking madness, and if you’ve already made your choice, then I’m certain a few words on a blog post will barely present a hiccup in your day.

But I find that I have to speak out about it, primarily because –whether I like it or not– I am a part of this community, the community of gamers, as despicable as it may be. This culture, this history– It’s as much mine as it is yours. I am female, not traditionally part of the targeted consumer base video games were initially meant for, but there you have it. I’ve been playing games since my childhood, and there is no one in the world who has the right to tell me that my experiences with this medium are less valid than anyone else’s.

(Artwork by NeverMonkey)

(Artwork by NeverMonkey)

I have not been paying attention to games journalism. The very concept of it is laughable! As other articles about this issue have pointed out, games journalism first and foremost is designed around the idea of prying money from its readers’ hands. The goal is to sell games, to present the best possible angle for the readers to gain interest in these games. There is no objectivity in this! The moment a games “journalist” says a game is good or a game is bad, then objectivity dies. There are no two sides to this story. Just a producer hoping to earn back the money they spent creating the game, and a journalist shill trying to sell that game to you, the consumer. This is not a breakthrough concept– we have it for music and film. Whether we like it or not, the video game industry is a business, and it is not in their interest to present us with totally objective facts or even cater to our particular preferences in video games. Their interests is to sell us their products. Full stop.

Then perhaps #GamerGate’s issue is against video game critics. In which case, #GamerGate is even more insane than I could conceive. The critic’s job is to talk about social issues even tangentially related to the medium. The critic gives a social/ cultural/ historical context to an art work. It frames the work in such a way wherein readers/ audiences at any point in time can go back to this article and realize that while Citizen Kane may seem mundane in today’s standards, it did something extraordinary back in its day. Some day in the future, some neo-gamer kid will look at the Tomb Raider series and wonder how on earth Lara Croft was ever considered a strong female character. This kid might stumble on a critical article that points out that while Lara is far from a realistic or even fully developed female video game character, we were starved for choices back then.

The question now is why we as a gaming community should tolerate, encourage, or be protective of our budding game critics. It really depends on which direction we want video games to go. If all we want is the right to consume mindless entertainment, as these mainstream vulture reporters largely depict video games as, then by all means, let’s lynch these game critics for raining on our parade. However, if we want our games to be elevated into an art form, into a cultural relic that reflects our values and history in the same manner that music, film, visual arts and all the other mediums are capable of doing, then we have to be open to criticism. We have to be able to talk about video games intellectually, and realize that where we are right now is not necessarily the best phase for video games. We can make it better. But to do that, we first have to recognize the mediums’ shortcomings with clear, sober eyes.

co op ed no girls allowed

The toxicity of gaming culture is something that I think most other geek-centric communities suffer from. From comic cons down to E3, it ain’t easy being a female geek (to be completely honest, it’s never easy being female. Across the board, regardless of what type of community we try to be a part of, there are always assholes who question our intentions). We’ve been pigeonholed, judged, stereotyped, compartmentalized, and objectified in every way possible, and then people ask why women are crazy. But the fact of the matter is that we’re here to stay. 48% of video game players are female, and the numbers are rising. The alarmists claim that we’ve come to storm the gates, but in truth, we’ve been in the town hall marveling at the architecture from the start.

I am of course familiar with the No Girls Allowed video game culture. As a geek girl growing up, I’ve found other like-minded girls. In our sleepovers, we had Street Fighter tournaments, Silent Hill pass-the-controller sessions, late night Final Fantasy conspiracy discussions. We chaffed at those jokes about how when a boy asks a girl to play a game with him, it’s because he needs a healer. No, bitch, it’s tank or nothing. A girl friend once told a story about how she nailed this guy she likes with three consecutive head shots in Team Fortress to let him know she likes him. See, we’re not so different.

What differences there may be between girl gamers and guy gamers can only benefit the community. Name any one medium that suffered from opening its flood gates to women. From literature, music, film, TV, visual arts, even sciences– women have something to say. Our experiences are just as valid, plus we haven’t had the opportunities to tell our stories yet. What we have, in effect, may well be refreshing storylines, game concepts that have never been done before, ways of seeing that no one has considered. The way forward is not to shut out these voices but to give them space to grow and interact, to build and design. Let’s have a discussion, let’s argue, let’s bicker– all in the hopes of pushing forward this video game medium that we all love. Harassing, threatening, and terrorizing female game critics and game developers means stunting video games’ potential.

There are two ways #GamerGate can end. The first is if enough gamers voice their rejection of this toxic culture, reclaim the label “gamer” from the fuckheads who stole it away and smeared shit over it, and develop the community into an environment where in the creation and enjoyment of games belongs to anyone who picks up a gaming device. The second is to let the trolls win– for the moment. Let the female game developers, critics, and their allies fall silent. Stop creating new, innovative games. Give the trolls what they want– Call of Duty 22, featuring nonstop testosterone-filled action, three different installments within a year! Let video games fester and rot in the status quo, drive video game studios into bankruptcy, let the community shrink back in size. Let video games die. From that rubble, we can rebuild a monument to Never Forget and shut out these assholes forever.

The times, they are a-changing, Gentlemen. Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall.


Lukas 140

Lukas: I’ve admittedly not been following #GamerGate as much as I should have. I’d heard about the Zoe Quinn “controversy” shortly after it blew up, when NeoGAF overlord Tyler Malka made fun of people who were demanding that threads discussing the issue be reopened. I’d say he handled it pretty well, back when the issue was focused on character assassinating Zoe Quinn based on unfounded, ultimately irrelevant rumors.

I also read Leigh Alexander’s “Gamers Are Over” article soon after it came out, and largely agreed with its argument. The stereotypical gamer, as has been covered amply by my fellow Kambyero editors, is part of an elitist, sycophantic crowd that isn’t helped at all by the anonymity of the internet. But, to be fair, so is the whole culture around games “journalists”, who actually consider themselves part of the industry they’re supposed to be covering.

Games journalism isn’t really journalism. Games journalism is enthusiast reporting, as Mixka has already noted. For the most part, in the “AAA” space, they exist as glorified PR mouthpieces for games companies, there to act as advertisers to drum up interest in new and upcoming games. it is only when outlets go the extra mile and write stories about the woman who pens the new Tomb Raider series or how games are made in a country you wouldn’t expect. But these types of content don’t pay the bills (Polygon actually laid off its features editor a few months back). So we get cynical headlines like “What Watch_Dogs can teach us about the situation in Ferguson“, which was later edited to be less controversial.

There have been calls for outlets to practice proper journalistic standards, as echoed by L. Rhodes. I’m reminded of the Chloe Sagal incident from last year, where sensitive personal information was revealed by a Destructoid writer. He was sacked as a result of the fallout.

I’ve mostly ignored #GamerGate for the most part– because Mixka is right; there are only two sides, madness and rationality. I got mostly caught up when we decided to reunite and talk about it, and what I read just made me sad. Sad and drained at the lives ruined and careers left behind. I may be being naive for expecting that we act better than this, but surely we can?

Gaming won’t be made lesser by its opening up to wider, more inclusive demographics. Gaming won’t be made greater by propagating a culture that will harass any woman at the slightest provocation. And if the greater community can’t recognize that, then the gamer really is over.


Job

Job: Full disclosure, this topic scares me. So much hate is spewing from every side, it’s difficult to see where to stand without getting clotheslined by invective rhetoric. But I will try, because, well, I like video games. And if you are reading this, you like them, too. In fact, everyone involved in this fiasco feels strongly about video games. We have killed off the old debates. There are no more questions raised whether it’s art or not. There are no more accusations lobbed against its legitimacy as a medium. That stuff’s old hat.

The current problem is that we are beginning to cannibalize ourselves. No, it’s not the “Quinnspiracy”. It’s not the sudden decrying for more rigorous game ethics. Gamers are attacking game journos, indie devs, and fellow gamers; journos are launching full-scale investigations into staff members they supposed to trust; indie devs are rubbing their temples in silence because they are terrified that whatever opinion they hold will damn them and the games they have bled their hearts on. And the AAA corporate titans? Well, the fucks they have given has reached a staggeringly tiny amount. This is a slobberknocker fought on local turf, with real people and (allegedly) real lives.

#GamerGate, I’m trying my darndest to like you. I’ve read your treatises and manifestoes. I’ve chimed in your oddly reasonable threads in /v/. I’ve read up on your most stalwart proponents. You are rallying people of different ethnicities and credos under your hashtag parasol. I’m not throwing shade at your ideas of inclusion and multiple perspectives in game criticism. Your attempts to focus the beam against knee-jerk extremism are brilliant–more people should know about what you stand for. More people should know you are actually level-headed men and women who are trying to say something.

co op ed vivian james

4chan’s own female video game character design “Vivian James”

However, some problems in your tenets arise. Your cries for journalistic integrity are amorphous. Fact: game journalists are not actual journalists. They should not be subjected to the same scrutiny as news reporters who report on real-life events. They–we–are enthusiast press. Essentially, we are just a few dudes who gathered together and decided we wanted to write about something we love. Fucking video games, man. It has always been about the video games. Game journos can never be truly objective because deep down, we adore the medium. We spend hours upon lifetimes on it. A huge chunk of ourselves have been dedicated to cavorting in binary kingdoms, to duking it out with our thumbs. The most jaded game critic still rubs stardust from his eyes when a game confronts them with something raw and dazzling. Video games are and have always been our jam.

Don’t look for objectivity where there shouldn’t be. I agree with your points though. Yes, conflicts of interest in the gaming industry exist. Yes, game journos should be more mindful of their connections in the game development. Yes, disclosures of these connections should be stated in reviews. But man, boycotting literally every gaming website? Isn’t that a teensy bit ridiculous? How much money do you think they are making? These are small communities with even smaller support groups. Destructoid and RPS were founded by gamers like yourselves who felt the need to talk about the games because, goddammit, they wanted to. Find your witches in castles and fortresses, not in the mudhuts with the rest of us peasants.

Secondly, you are fucked. You were fucked from the very beginning because of the disgusting actions of your so-called few. It pains me to say, but you guys didn’t just shoot yourself in the foot–you blew your legs off their joints and you are now a mewling, gasping half-person clawing for purchase. Here is the rub: whatever nuggets of wisdom you espouse have unfortunately been slathered with the  rich veneer of bullshit collected from the maws of trolls appropriating your movement. You may try to put out the fires by distancing yourself from them, but understand that this is a PR gangfight won and lost on the streets of public opinion. I myself don’t like Zoe’s cherry-picked storify post, where her supposedly sick burns aren’t contextually flush to the capped conversation. But does it matter? Naw, because she has been victimized. People are golf-clapping and back-patting her because they are disgusted at what she has gone through. Of course you didn’t do any harassing, #GamerGate. I believe you when you say you condemn those trolls, too. But it’s too late. Your name is stamped on people’s shitlist. It’s pretty ironic. In spite of your stance against being extremists’ shields, you are being used as one.

I am sorry, #GamerGate. I really am. But this is not the right time for you. Try again in a few months, when everybody’s thunder has died out. In the meantime, regroup and mobilize. Regulate your tone and revise your statements and preambles. Make something. Make sense. And for God’s sake, wipe the crap from your cheek.


Joseph: Maybe the gaming press as we know it all burns down as David Auerbach of Slate puts it mildly. GameSpot laid off a good number of its editorial staff not too long ago, while PewDiePie is making millions a year. Video game live-streaming site Twitch has 45 million unique monthly viewers as of the end of 2013, and its recent acquisition by Amazon will only bolster its online presence and influence.

Kotaku, Polygon, and The Escapist have all updated their policies regarding press/developer connections. Some critics bandying the ethics problem in games journalism have come together to form a site called GoodGamers that’s supposed to be free of such corruption. Zoe Quinn posted her “final thoughts” on the issue, although she remains to be a target of harassment as she continues to speak out on social media.

The conspiracy theories about the cabal of indie game developers manipulating awards shows for profit (which the Independent Games Festival have addressed, and Rock Paper Shotgun had already covered with actual interviews with the people involved two years ago)and having connections with DARPA for social engineering spiral into truther territory of paranoia.

Big name publishers and the two largest online games publications have chosen to stay out of this controversy completely.

Destiny came out today just before earning the prestigious title of most preordered video game new IP ever.

I turn my PS3 on, thinking of whether or not I ride the wave and get the game to get away from all the madness. I see this message I received from playing The Last of Us multiplayer last night.

???????????????????????????????Video games gonna video game.

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This entry was posted on 9 September 2014 by in Discussion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , .
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