GamerGate – Welcome to games-journalism

I’ve been quiet lately. Illnesses and time in hospitals are partly to blame, but so has “GamerGate”, the elephant in the room that I’ve been reluctant to talk about.

GamerGate is a mixed-bag of intractable stuff, much of it (at best) misguided, and (at worst) ridiculous and offensive. Whatever its ostensible mission, it has had the effect of chilling speech, and causing many female games-writers and games-developers to consider another career, or to fear for their safety and that of their families.

I’ve not wanted to talk about this, because I’ve already gotten a dose of that treatment myself, and it is more or less inevitable that even the slightest criticism of GamerGate will likely generate more. Nevertheless, there are things that I feel need to be said.

Once upon a time in 4chan

I don’t know why 4chan decided to target independent game developer Zoe Quinn. Much of the time, I don’t know why 4channers do much of anything, really. Maybe they just picked her as a soft-target for trolling, being that she’s young, female and suffers from clinical depression.

4channers communicated on their Web-site, planning to discredit Quinn, by making assorted claims about her, and incidentally, (verifiably false) claims about poor ethical conduct at Gawker media’s gaming site, Kotaku; the latter, apparently, in the hope of legitimising the mistreatment of Quinn for its own sake.

The whole thing snowballed, with threats and harassment of female gamers, game-developers and game-critics/journalists escalating to quite alarming levels, with a side-order of generally questioning the ethics of the gaming-journalism industry as a whole, served up in a whole with-us-or-against-us package by people who purported to speak for all gamers, everywhere.

This was a cocktail that some game-journalists (who are, incidentally, also gamers) could not abide, and a number of them wrote opinion pieces of their own to the effect of “if this is gaming culture, then I don’t want to get any of it on my hands”, and that just inflamed things further.

Cards on the table. The secrets that you don’t know about games-journalism

Okay, honesty time. I’ve been a games-journalist (I’m indie nowadays), and I’ve written for more than one outfit under more than one by-line. So, unless you’re a games-journalist too, I know more about this stuff, and the people involved in it than you do, and I’ll tell you what goes on behind the curtain.

After all, there’s valid concerns about the ethics of games-journalists writing about the products of the people who are ultimately paying the bills (game-publishers, in the form of advertising revenue). I can understand those concerns.

Now, the initial claims of unethical behaviour (and demonstrably false ones, for anyone who took the time to check) started with Kotaku. Now, Kotaku’s a bit of a soft-target itself to my way of thinking, being a part of the Gawker media network.

Personally, I don’t care for a lot of Gawker media’s stable of publications, and I’ve generally found the writing style and tone at Kotaku to be… well, kind of juvenile and off-putting (though not nearly so much so as the comments). Sorry, Kotaku, but I said that I’d be honest.

So, when the whole thing with Zoe Quinn popped up on my radar, I suppose I felt that there was a faint whiff of plausibility to the idea of someone at Kotaku maybe crossing an ethical line, based on the past-impressions that the editorial tone of the publication had given me.

Maybe it was a worthy story, I thought, so I checked into it – and found that the claims were incorrect. The ethical breaches claimed of Kotaku hadn’t happened, and that was easy to check out.

Shortly thereafter, Kotaku refuted them in a magnificently, clear, unambiguous and well-written piece on the subject, which raised my esteem for the publication significantly (And the way they’ve handled things since then has only strengthened that esteem).

And that, I thought, would be the end of it. Only it wasn’t. The idea that the games-journalism industry was “on the take” had momentum.

And this is hardly surprising.

You see, as a games-journalist, I’ve been accused of this before, as have my co-workers. Frequently. In fact, it is the norm.

Here’s how it works. Say that you write a review about Diablo III, and in it you say that you thought it was pretty fun. Within a half hour, you get accused of being “on the take” to Activision-Blizzard, that you’re only saying something nice about the game (which your accuser tells you is wretched and awful) because you’re either getting some sort of kick-back from Activision-Blizzard, or because you don’t want to wind up disadvantaged for future review-copies of games, and access to the company for interviews and such.

You sigh, knowing that you wrote what you wrote because that was really your own opinion, and move on to the next message.

This one accuses you of being on the take to Runic Games because you (a) said somewhere else that you thought Torchlight II was pretty fun, and (b) because of your faint praise (having failed to describe Diablo III as the best game in PC history).

Within a couple days, you’ve read through dozens of messages accusing you of ethical misconduct, because you published an opinion.

If you’re female (or thought to be based on your name), often these are accompanied by threats of physical violence, and sexual assault.

For every opinion you publish, positive or negative, there are people who are going to believe (without any evidence other than that it conflicts with their own opinion) that it is the product of an unethical process.

Welcome to the world of games-journalism.

This is why we so very rarely read the comments on our own work, except where someone reports a comment for violating the posting rules. Some writers take more or less time to learn that lesson, but once learned, it is a lesson that sticks with you.

The incestuous nature of advertising and publishing

Now, yes, it is absolutely true that the very companies that we write about advertise the products that we are writing about on our Web-sites – and that’s how we pay the bills and feed our families. Isn’t it true that that may influence us, even unconsciously?

Absolutely, and games-publications take steps to avoid that. The writers (AKA, the editorial team) are rarely involved in whatever mechanisms put advertising on the site. Which is probably all to the best. Most of us are gamers and wordsmiths, not business-negotiators, so how much money comes from whom? We’re not a part of that process, and we’re not told.

There are often additional safeguards, for example, one company I wrote for, the CMS (content-management-system) refused to actually show any of the advertising to us, instead just providing some blank place-holder graphics. We could have cleared our browser-cookies, and made an active effort to see who was advertising at any given moment, but that would have been a bother, and we were actively discouraged from doing so.

Any hint by management that we might have slanted our writing for or against a product based on site-advertising or kick-backs or other such influences, well, that would be a sacking offense, and the very idea was antithetical to myself and my co-workers.

There are some things that might make you a little uncomfortable. Generally (though not always) we submit our own content to digg/reddit/stumbleupon/facebook/whatever, occasionally under an unrelated account. A lesson taught early on is “If you don’t submit it yourself, don’t bank on anyone else doing it. Waiting just means that the folks across the street will cover your piece and submit their own coverage and eat up the hits.”

When we have a hot exclusive or breaking news, often a whole bunch of people from a variety of company blogs will be asked if they want to give it a bump – though they’re free to not do so, if they don’t think it is worthy of the click.

I’ve never much cared for that practice myself, but when you’ve done the hard work of researching/interviewing/assembling for an exclusive or some really hot news, and gotten it out first, you don’t want the whole world to be reading someone else’s second-hand coverage of your own work, while yours languishes, largely unnoticed.

Promoting your own work through social media so that original reporting gets the attention it deserves? Not exactly reprehensible, though we don’t exactly shout it from the rooftops. So many folks already think we’re on-the-take as it is.

Fact: I’ve never met or worked with a dishonest or unethical games-journalist.

Speculation: I’m sure that some unethical journalists, editorial-teams, or publications probably exist. I mean, there was the famous incident with Jeff Gerstmann, a few years ago. He stuck to his ethics, even though his management team didn’t… and apparently neither did Eidos – a mistake that I don’t think they’ll be repeating in a hurry. There have been a very few other such incidents over the years, but nobody I personally know or have worked with/for. While I’m sure there are a handful of bad actors out there somewhere, games-journalism almost overwhelmingly provides a solid, ethical front against just that sort of thing.

Fact: As games-journalists, when we write opinion pieces (including, but not limited to games reviews) we’re paid to write our own opinions. Not the publication’s opinions; not the games-publisher’s opinions; not the games-developers’ opinions; and not your opinions either. Often, somewhat ironically, it is that last part that our loudest critics seem to find hardest to swallow.

Fact: We don’t have the same opinions that you do, because we’re not you. We have our own experiences, points-of-view, likes-and-dislikes. Our opinion pieces and game-reviews reflect that.

Fact: There is no such thing as an objective game-review. It’s possible that there could be, but you wouldn’t want to read it – it wouldn’t give you any idea about whether you might enjoy a game or not. There’s no such thing as an objective book or film review either, except that it might be approached by the very driest critiques that – well, don’t really give you any idea if you’d enjoy what is being reviewed.

Fact: If you think a numeric score will give you an idea about how much you will enjoy a game, you are probably generally very disappointed. Instead, look at what a reviewer likes and dislikes and why. Some reviewers dislike everything in a game that really appeals to me. I can trust those reviews when they say they didn’t like a game because of a certain set of features/mechanics, because I then know those games are likely to be interesting and fun for me.

Fact: A lot of people clamour for games-reviews that agree with their own opinions, likes and dislikes; or (oddly) that follow a rather rigid and uninspired format so they can more or less just skip to the numeric scores at the bottom without really feeling that they’ve missed anything important. I think that’s kind of sad.

Opinion: I find game-reviews with numeric scores inherently suspect. Given the way performance bonuses are paid by games-publishers, if there is any unethical crud going on with reviews, you’ll probably find it there.

Fact: I write game reviews too (though not so much lately, in part because of GamerGate), and mine are something of a departure from that kind of thing. Like them or hate them; I write them for the people who get something useful out of them. If that’s not you (and it is okay if it isn’t), then there are plenty of other places to go to get reviews you’ll find informative.

Opinion: I think almost all of GamerGate’s criticism of the ethics of the games-journalism industry, as that industry currently exists, is unfounded. I believe that my opinion on this matter is well justified by personal and direct experience.

Opinion: I believe that the ethical concerns (while, as I said, quite real – if unfounded) primarily exist to draw relatively thoughtful and reasonable people into the GamerGate fold, to provide a veneer of legitimacy over what is, essentially, a movement primarily aimed at denying women fair representation in both games and in the gaming industry.

Oh, yes. The women

Back to the topic of women vis-a-vis GamerGate. The elephant on top of the elephant in the room. The elephant I’ve spent the majority of the word-count of this piece avoiding talking about

What I’ve written already is enough to earn me any amount of hate-mail, death-threats and threats of sexual assault – because, as screwed up as it is, that’s what happens to people who don’t support the GamerGate line.

So, with that in mind, it isn’t going to get any worse (in relative terms) if I speak as plainly and honestly as I can about this.

… No, look, there… see? I had to take a walk, and carefully consider… because it can be worse, and it most likely will be. That’s the nature of this beast.

Deep breath. Here we go. GamerGate is one-part reasonable (if largely unfounded) concern over the ethics of games-journalism, to about 40-parts sexual harassment, threats and abuse of women. As far as I can tell, GamerGate started with the sole purpose of attacking game-developer Zoe Quinn by creating a false story about some breaches of journalistic ethics that hadn’t happened.

Whether by timing, or by design, this extended to that perennial target, Anita Sarkeesian, and then on, and on and on. It makes me nervous about just writing about games, and terrifies me about actually talking about how I feel about that, because, that’s a proven path to abuse. Heck, it even makes me feel uncomfortable about playing games, and being a gamer, that’s a pretty awful feeling.

Some of you may feel (having gotten this far) that GamerGate still has valid, unanswered concerns. The problem is that any of that – all of that – is completely lost in the torrential abuse and harassment of women, women-gamers, women game-developers, women game-journalists.

Sure, most of these threats are just noise. You know it, and I know it. That doesn’t make them any less pleasant, however, because you can never treat them that way. There’s always the chance, however small, that one of them is serious – and you can never know which one. Start moving these snakes from that enclosure to the other one. Oh, don’t worry about safety, only one of them is poisonous. Those are good odds, right? (Not all snakes!)

It might feel like you reasonable people (a minority? A majority? Nobody can tell) are being tarred with an overly broad brush, but it’s the GamerGaters that are abusing women who are holding the brush, for all practical purposes. It makes it impossible to talk to the rest of you in any reasonable way without suffering intolerable doses of venom. I don’t think many reasonable people could be reasonably blamed for not even making the attempt.

Even so, GamerGate is making cultural heroes out of Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, Kotaku and others. Call it Streisand Effect, if you like, but the misogynist portion of GamerGate is making its targets more respected, not less, even while GamerGate’s other effects threaten to gut what little diversity and equality there is from the gaming-industry.

Me? I’d like to go back to being a gamer who can write about what I like and what I dislike without worrying about threats of violence or sexual assault or near-constant accusations of dishonesty. Without worrying that someone will pitch a brick through my window for disagreeing with GamerGate (which I do, in practically every respect). To be able to write about games and gaming (something we all love and hate in different measures for different reasons), and even, perhaps about more complex issues of racial, religious, gender and sexual representation in – what we like to think of as – creative works.

Wouldn’t that be something?


An important update: One of the really great things about writing this article (by which I mean not great at all) was that the whole site was DoSed, DDoSed, falsely reported for hosting malware and generally mostly blotted out of sight for most of the next month after it was written.

Like nobody was expecting that to happen, right? Apparently some person or persons were so utterly freaked out by the fact that I expressed some personal opinions that they had to try to do their best to prevent anyone from ever reading them. Golly. Makes a girl feel right special.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t written anything in the almost five months since I published this piece, it’s because I haven’t actually been able to properly access the site or upload posts because of the hammering it has been getting. This has, thankfully, died down somewhat to the point that I actually can make new posts on my own Web-site. Unless my soul has been crushed. We’ll just have to see.