The current state of games journalism
A response to THIS article.
Let’s preface this by saying that if you’re a fair-minded opponent, that should mean that you acknowledge there are problems in gaming journalism, that they should be fixed (even if you think they can’t at this point) and that you understand #gamergate isn’t about abuse.
To whom am I speaking? I should specify, shouldn’t I? After all, as the gamers I talked to on Tuesday made it clear, there are a great many people involved, and not all of them see entirely eye-to-eye. In general, though, those of you who were patient enough to answer my questions seemed to agree on three broad points:
1. That you see the word gamer as an valuable way to identify yourself;
2. That you are dismayed with what you see as corruption in the gaming press; and
3. That you are opposed to exclusion—and, therefore, to harassment.
Seems pretty fair, but let’s break this down a bit:
1. Gamer is a bit tighter than geek or nerd. Gamer is a fan of a medium, like ‘film buff’ or ‘bookworm’, while geeks and nerds are more broad categories with interests more in line with genres. You don’t see this same controversy over the suffixes -fan, or ‘-buff’. That ‘gamer’ seems to come in for such opprobrium – even by its own supposed press – is an issue and indicative of hypocrisy in people who are supposedly against discrimination.
2. Let’s be clear here. It’s not ‘what is seen as corruption’ at this point, it IS corruption and it’s not just this single instance, it’s corruption across the industry along with nepotism and the prosecution of a ‘social justice’ agenda in collusion with others. It’s the drift of games journalism from its remit.
3. Nobody wants to exclude anyone and #NotYourShield demonstrates the existing diversity of people in the games industry. The ‘status quo’ is not a boys club, but an inclusive and diverse medium and THAT is what people are seeking to protect against conservative outside forces as well as preserving consumer protection for those who buy games media.
That last item is an important distinction. While nearly everyone I spoke to last night insisted on that point, not everyone has taken the same approach. Others have struck upon harassment as a handy tool for achieving their goals. We’ll get back to them in a moment, but for now I want to specifically address those who sincerely want #GamerGate to be about inclusion, not exclusion.
You mean trolls.
Please, please, please stop taking trolls seriously.
I presume you know your way around the internet and therefore know ‘don’t feed the troll’. The vast and overwhelming majority of nasty bullshit on both sides comes from trolls. If anything more of the abuse from the opposition to #gamergate is sincere. You have devs and journalists spewing venom at their own audience, fat-shaming, ‘cishetwhitemale’ is being flung around a lot with a tone of scorn along with ‘pissbaby’, ‘shitlord’, ‘cheeto fingered basement dweller’ etc. That’s from people who aren’t anonymous Twitter eggs with all of two followers to their name but real, actual people.
Stop taking trolls seriously. Trolling IS an issue, but a separate one.
I keep hammering this point home but we have this weird situation of synergistic trolling going on where both the troll and the victim gain by the trolling being taken seriously. Someone like Sarkeesian – who may or may not have orchestrated fake trolling attacks on herself for publicity – can point to obviously insincere trolling and threats as evidence of her thesis that ‘gaming’ is misogynistic when anyone with a lick of experience on the net knows that trolls are essentially meaningless and that it doesn’t mean jack squat other than a sociopath has an internet connection.
Stop taking them seriously. It’s profoundly disingenuous.
With nearly every gamer I spoke to, I started out by asking, “What do you see as the overarching goal of #GamerGate?” When, as was often the case, you answered “corruption,” I made a point of following up by asking what practices you had in mind. And it’s there, in your answers to that question, that I could begin to see the goals and imperatives of your activism begin to diverge. Some asked only for more prominent disclaimers whenever a writer had a potential conflict of interest. Others argued that disclaimers weren’t enough, and that writers ought to be recused whenever a relationship might be thought to go beyond the bounds of the professional. Still others felt that developers were capable of exerting too much financial pressure over the gaming press. Even while arguing that #GamerGate was not primarily about the accusations of a certain ex-boyfriend, yet others seemed primarily concerned that sexual relationships with developers had a rampant and undue influence on how writers report on games.
So there’s no actual divergence. Everyone agrees that conflicts of interest are an issue and a variety of potential solutions to that issue have been offered. This variety of concerns are all one concern – conflict of interest. The potential solutions all deal with that problem.
It’s possible to see that distinction a bit more clearly if you compare the way games have traditionally written about in a venue like, say, the New York Times, versus the way they usually covered in gaming magazines. Even when they weren’t being downright skeptical, non-enthusiast publishers tended to be at least agnostic about the value of games in general. When you write for an enthusiast press, though, you’ve already thrown out some measure of objectivity, since it’s assumed that you and your reader already agree that games are worth your time, money and interest.
Ah, but that has changed, hasn’t it? Even high scoring reviews now often contain a hectoring tone about representations of women and minorities which seems to cast doubt on the value of games at all. It’s as though every film review contained a reference to the Bechdel Test – and it gets incredibly wearing to be told you’re shit and your medium is shit and your favourite games are shit because of ideological reasons that you don’t necessarily agree with. It’s like every single news outlet is now Fox News, relentlessly hammering an agenda that’s largely bullshit to anyone who takes the time to do their own analysis.
It’s also horribly familiar to anyone with passing familiarity with the history of ‘geek censorship’. Fredric Wertham, Pat Pulling, Jack Thompson, the Judas Priest trial… moral panics with no substance, every one. This generation’s Jack Thompson is Anita Sarkeesian but where the gaming press of old held the line against Thompson and his ilk, they’ve bought into the panic this time and are prosecuting it. Little wonder that to many this feels like a betrayal.
Its origins as an enthusiast press have left a deep impress on the industry. A current events reporter for Reuters may sneak into a war zone to get the unvarnished truth, but that isn’t how enthusiast presses work. They rely for most of their information on the companies whose products they cover. Most of the news stories you read on your favorite gaming site are based on press releases. The interviews wouldn’t be possible if the site hadn’t maintained an amicable relationship with the publisher. The juicy tidbits that weren’t meant to be revealed so early are typically the result of writers and developers chumming it up at expos and conferences.
All of what you’re saying is true, but it’s apologia for the poor state of the gaming press. It’s making excuses and it isn’t, and wouldn’t, be tolerated were we talking about, say, representation in games. As such, it should be brushed off with equal derision to the way statements like ‘But the core audience is white males 18-35…’ are.
Still, I actually consider that a valid (commercial but not creative) argument. So let’s treat your argument seriously for a moment in return.
Yes, this is the way things are. Yes it will be difficult to change, but should it? Is it worth the fight despite the pressures involved?
Much as you would suggest, I’m sure, that it’s worth the risk of making more diverse and ‘inclusive’ games (whatever that means) despite the commercial issues. So it is worth the risk of bringing honesty into games journalism and having game journalism place the consumer at the top of their concerns, rather than the companies.
“Corruption” probably isn’t the right word for all of that. It isn’t like gaming magazines and sites started out with the standards endorsed by the SPJ and Reuters, but lost sight of their values over time. All along, chumminess with the makers of video games has been the cost of access to the information you’ve demanded as a gamer. That isn’t a recent development, and if you’ve been supporting the gaming press up until now, then you’ve been complicit in supporting those relationship, whether you realized it or not.
Yeah it is the right word. Games journalists have been being, essentially, bribed by companies for a very long time and when bribes don’t work they get blackmailed or extorted. I’ve seen this from the inside. You can’t give a bad review or that company and possibly that publisher and distributor won’t work with you any more. No early access, no free games, suddenly things get a lot more expensive and your news cycle can’t build hype and you can’t get traffic.
This needs to change and, ironically, that would take collusion in the existing ‘mainstream’ games media to happen.
Growth will mean insisting upon the distinction between serious investigative journalism and the sort of enthusiast reporting that has traditionally passed for gaming news. If you’re promoting #GamerGate because you like the way the gaming press covered games before writers starting investigating topics like labor exploitation and the gender divide, then you may want to stop insisting on higher journalistic standards. If those standards are important to you, then you’ll have to tolerate those sorts of articles, even when you don’t like the light they case on gaming. As William Randolph Hearst famously said, “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.”
Let’s stop you there.
Labour exploitation at places like EA is genuine investigative journalism, and good stuff. We’d also like to know – I’m sure – how and in what conditions our consoles, chips, computers and peripherals are made.
The gender divide/representation etc isn’t investigative journalism. It’s op-ed (and IIRC 22% of the games industry is female, though only 17% or so of computer related graduates are female, so work wise representation seems to be doing just fine). We already have diverse games and promoting and enjoying those games doesn’t have to include shitting on everyone else’s fun and making out that subjective taste is some kind of objective cultural issue that’s really and truly ‘srs bsns’.
At the same time, many of you told me that you wanted to see less social criticism in those reviews. If you really think that through, you’ll see that you can’t have it both ways. There’s a deep contradiction imbedded in the notion that, on the one hand, writers shouldn’t be beholden to developers when they review a game, and that, on the other hand, they should avoid criticisms they feel are relevant. Most game publishers don’t want to be criticized for the social prejudices they may have worked into their games. As such, the simple fact that a writer or editor would be willing to publish a social criticism ought to be treated as evidence that the venue is maintaining some independence from the industry on which it reports. Even when it doesn’t interest you, even when you disagree with what’s been said— even if, as some of you expressed, you feel personally affronted on the game’s behalf — you ought to welcome such criticism as a check on the sort of cozy developer/press relationship you’ve called corrupt.
Again, the problem is that this is a relentless, Fox Newsian choir of singular opinion, and opinion that has fuck all to do with the game. When it appears it should be clearly marked as an op-ed and not concealed within a review or played up for click bait. ‘Fair and balanced’ is another watchword of mainstream journalism and I don’t mean distorting things by including opposing (marginal) views to things like climate change. It is the unquestioning promotion of unproven assumptions – akin to Thompson’s ‘games cause violence’ thesis and the lionisation of known frauds like Sarkeesian, apparently just because she says the ‘right’ things, that are an issue. When known frauds are getting industry awards, something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Which is just as well, since you those of you who answered my questions on Twitter couldn’t point me to a really viable plan for effecting change. After “what do you hope to achieve,” the question I asked most was, “How do you intend to achieve it?” Some of you seemed to think that the social media campaign would be enough to shame publishers into adopting your standards. It’s possible that, at least for the time being, we’ll see more disclaimers pointing out potential conflicts of interest, but beyond that, I wouldn’t expect much voluntary action on the part of publishers. They themselves may want to see more serious journalism, but their bread and butter is still the enthusiast tier of the industry. They mostly cannot afford to cut ties with the companies on which they report.
Gamergate has been a good start. It has exposed some bad people and eaten away at the popularity of the major offenders. There’s been some acknowledgement of issues from some games sites and introductions of codes of conduct with regard to crowdfunding. This is all a good start.
Ideally what would change would be that the consumer would be re-centred as the main concern of the gaming press and that they would reassert themselves to ‘fight for the users’. They are not there to be PR for games companies and they should give fair and genuine reviews. They also need to stop attacking their own audience which they have been doing for years in their reviews and articles and have now done more explicitly on Twitter.
Perhaps we’ll see new, more honest sites popping up that will pick up the traffic that has fallen away from Kotaku and the like. I also hope we see more games companies willing to reassert their creative independence and to tell the social critics to take a hike.
“So we’ll force their hands,” some of you told me. You suggested boycotting outlets that didn’t adopt your standards. But there’s a serious chicken-and-egg problem with that plan. After all, the point is to increase transparency, but how can you know which outlets to boycott unless they’re already being transparent about those relationships? Some suggested an independent review board tasked with ensuring transparency, without any real plan for funding it or making its pronouncements enforceable. Without some means of forcing recalcitrant outlets to make their relationships more transparent, the only viable way to decide who gets boycotted is the shotgun approach. But to send an effective message, a boycott must be narrowly targeted. The nature of your complaint makes that practically impossible.
Gamers, hackers and independent investigations have done a good job exposing corruption so far, from the initial spark to problems at Gearbox and at The Guardian. If they retain their focus on this it should become self-policing to an extent.
There is, as it happens, one group using the #GamerGate hashtag that has figured out an effective plan for changing the gaming press. Their method is continual harassment. They hurl invective, issue threats, expose sensitive information (like bank account numbers) and generally work to intimidate writers out of the business of printing something somebody doesn’t like. Typically, they target individuals rather than institutions, especially those with relatively small support systems, like financially vulnerable freelancers and independent developers, or non-commercial blogs sustained by reader donations rather than ad revenue.
Desired state of the gaming media
You’re taking trolls seriously again – and forgetting that it cuts both ways. This is part of what gamers are sick of, being lumped in with trolls and abusers simply because its convenient and plays into an existing (false) narrative about the gaming community. The overuse of the ‘misogynerd’ meme is robbing it of its power. People aren’t buying it any longer.
You lose because it gets harder to espouse your cause when people associate it with harassment and misogyny. You lose because the number of people actively working to make the press more reliable and gaming more inclusive dwindles a little more. You lose because more people feel excluded from gaming. You lose, most of all, because hate takes a greater share of the world.
Then stop, falsely, associating it with harassment and misogyny or DO start realising that this issue isn’t one sided and that the ‘SJW’ side in all this is just as guilty and far more GENUINE in its threats and insults. Understand that they are the ones excluding people and trying to enact censorship, all based on bullshit ideological viewpoints and bad social critique that gamers don’t buy and which they see echoes of the folk memories of the moral panics of yesteryear in.
But most of all, stop taking the trolls seriously and accept and understand that #gamergate people are genuine.