Corruption, objectivity, and social justice... are they really the end of games writing as we know it?
I’m feeling conflicted just writing those words. If you’ve managed to avoid the whole argle-bargle, not only are you quite lucky, but it’s really heartening to know that it’s not as all-consuming as it feels. But to catch you up, it’s a pro-gamer movement, driven by a response to a number of developments in games writing and reviewing.
It kinda kicked off with the whole Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn thing that got me riled up a couple of weeks ago, and has gotten crankier and stranger ever since. The GamerGate crowd want to fight corruption in games journalism, and the spread of so-called Social Justice Warriors, while also calling for more objectivity in games writing. They want to see games writers standing up for gamers, and not being pals with industry folks. To accomplish this, blacklists of SJW writers are being circulated (I’m on a couple, which is intensely weird-making), and shadowy cabals are hanging out in Pastebin discussions digging all manner of nebulous connections between writers, developers, and academics.
At the same time, more militant GamerGaters are actively pursuing certain targets to drive them out of the industry. Oddly, while one of the key concerns for those involved is that they are sick of being targeted as misogynists by the gaming media, it is female writers and developers that have felt the brunt of the movement’s ire.
In short, from where I’m sitting, it’s a mess. No matter how high-minded the ideals that some of those involved may be, there’s no doubt in my mind that the movement is not only dreadfully misguided, but also fatally compromised.
But it’s a very hard thing to write about, especially as it is so very personal. The impossibility of writing objectively about games aside (more on that later), it’s certainly impossible to write objectively about GamerGate when you’re a target of it. Even worse, is the knowledge that, being a male writer, I can actually get away with it without the horrid abuse, stalking, and threats that my female colleagues in the industry are in fear of – and I know a few who are actively avoiding the topic for just that fear. For those who’ve never quite gotten what ‘privilege’ means in situations like this, that is exactly what I’m taking advantage of.
But that’s neither here nor there.
I’ve tried to engage a few different groups on the matter, too. I’ve spoken with those trying to fight the good fight under the #gamergate hashtag, and tried to chat with folks on my own forum before having a minor freak out and running away from the internet (sorry, Catmosphere!). As I alluded to, it’s really nice knowing there are a lot of gamers – I suspect the majority – who are simply unaware of the issue. It really does seem a minority thing, but it’s a very vocal, very net-savvy minority. There are those who are aware of it, but kinda can’t see the point, which is also kind of nice, and, of course, there are those that really do think it’s something to get behind – the true believers.
It also needs to be said that there are a lot of GamerGaters that can’t even find a consensus in their own movement. When I spoke to folks on Twitter, about three different arguments started up about how far the movement should go to realise its aims, who and what were legitimate targets, or even what GamerGate meant.
One Twitter, the rather curiously and ironically named @Mckickasstitties, pointed out my error when I suggested that GamerGate was kind of aimless; he kindly pointed me to one of many ‘manifestos’ floating around on the subject.
It addresses what it calls the “three parts to this industry that we feel must be addressed for the general health of video games as a whole”. Namely, these are:
- “the Consumer, the Public, the Gamers Themselves”
- “the Developers, the Pioneers, the Game Makers”
- And “Suppliers, the Press, the Trusted Informers”
And yes, it really is written like a first year political discourse or an Apple commercial from last decade.
My problem with the document is that it’s hardly a flattering look inside the mind of the average GamerGater. At best it’s inflated elitism masquerading as Serious Bizness, and at worst, it is damagingly hypocritical document that is conveniently impossible for an actual human to follow.
For instance, when addressing fellow gamers, the manifesto states “The concept of “casualization” is NOT the cause of some slippery sloping spiral ending video games, rather it is a ladder being established to allow others a chance to grow and understand the joy of games as we do,” and then asks that “old gamers that begrudgingly deny those who wish to learn or interact with game culture, do not shun them, but rather try to point them down the right path.”
Because won’t someone think of those poor fucking noobs.
It’s actually rather light on game developers, though, asking basically that they play nice with each other and be professional about criticism, not only that “Developers should NEVER actively attempt to pay off or coerce positive feedback and/or harsh censorship from the gaming public nor press.”
Which would put most PR people in the industry out of business, which is just a touch unfair. But this does expose one of the weaknesses behind the GamerGate movement – namely, that it doesn’t quite get how the industry actually works on a day to day basis. The art of all marketing and public relations is basically to ‘coerce positive feedback’; it’s actually the responsibility of the consumer to see through it, with the assistance of an impartial (note: NOT objective) press.
The wheels of the manifesto really do fall off when it addresses the press, however. These two points stand out like sore controller thumbs:
2. The gaming press should actively attempt to be as objective as possible when analysing or reviewing a game for the public. Personal bias should be avoided as much as possible.
4. Each journalist should be entitled to their own perspective and review of a game or topic and should not be persuaded by outside sources to change their opinion to fit an overarching agenda.
So, basically, we have to write objectively, but we’re allowed our own perspective. And we’re meant to follow this manifesto, but at the same time not listen to any outside agendas. Whenever I try to think that one through too much I end up disappearing down a rabbit hole of causality and despair.
So let me try to deconstruct the three main issues, point by point – corruption, social justice, and objectivity – and see if we can make some sense of this.
Mo’ money, mo’ corruption
There is a widespread idea that graft, corruption, and favours are at the heart of the relationship between the games press and the big publishers. Real, factual incidents of coercion and cash for comment do exist, but in the mainstream press (ie, not bloggers or YouTubers), it’s the exception, not the rule. Of course, if you believe it’s widespread, you’re probably going to believe I’m being paid off by EA as we speak, so... yeah. Not much I can do.
But I’ll say this – I know everyone in the Sydney games press, and most of the PR and marketing guys, and I do not know of a single incident of what I’d call corruption. Yes, if you write something that a company doesn’t like, you’ll get a phone call about it, but that’s expected (remember, that’s a PR’s job), and nine times out of ten it’s dealt with and both parties move on. I’ve said bad things about companies from SEGA to EA, dealt with the fallout, and then got on with the job. Or, if they’re really being dicks, I’ll write about it.
There’s kind of a reason Activision and I don’t get on that well.
But just generally speaking, the scale of what most games writers do just doesn’t fit in with the plans of a company the size of, say, EA. These guys advertise on the sides of busses, on giant billboards. They run ad campaigns across television and high-end press. One reviewer saying a game’s kinda shit really doesn’t affect that kind of spend.
The thing with corruption is it only works if it’s endemic – that’s what we’re saying in the daily news coming out of ICAC. New South Wales politics is basically rife with it.
Games journalism isn’t. It really, honestly, isn't. It has plenty of other problems, but this is not one of them.
More than a few people, however, have also brought up the amount of freebies that games writers enjoy. We get flown overseas, our drinks bought for us, free games to review... you know, it’s kinda cool. And when you think of what it might cost, say, to send a writer from Sydney to Warsaw to cover a three day gaming event (my trip earlier in the year for Wargaming.net), yeah, that’s a tonne of cash, being spent on me.
However, if Wargaming wasn’t paying for it, I wouldn’t be going. I’m not going to pony up the cash, and my company surely wouldn’t. But it’s an event worth covering; it’s a chance to meet devs and publishers, to see and report on something that is kinda neat and cool. It makes for good stories, and good traffic.
And Wargaming gets the coverage they want. Everybody gets something out of that – press, readers, publishers – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But think if we did have to buy everything – food at events, games to review, travel, accommodation... most writers would not able to afford their job. Especially in Australia!
The sad thing is, though, that while the existence of corruption can often be proven with enough digging, it’s absence is something far harder to substantiate, which is why the disruptive side of GamerGate is so disheartening.
Making the world better is not a bad thing
The term ‘social justice warrior’ is intended to be a pejorative label, something to be thrown at writers – like myself – who write about such topics as gender, sexuality, and diversity in games. Unsurprisingly, it’s been received as somewhat of a badge of honour by most, because if you think those things are worth fighting for, then being a social justice warrior is no bad thing.
It’s these kind of agendas that GamerGate wants to see removed from gaming journalism, however. In the words of Alex Mahan at The Examiner:
Nobody likes being called immature, or sexist, or misogynistic, or bigoted. Nobody likes being told that their favorite game is bad because it's racist. Many gamers have no interest in SJW opinion articles, and just want to read about exciting games. Many gamers are offended by the idea of SJW agendas infecting their favorite websites and influencing the developers of their favorite video games.
I don’t know about you, but as I told the GamerGater who linked me the article (and later called me to tell me he knows where I work - FUN), when I read this what I hear is someone saying: ‘I cannot take criticism, I won’t accept change, and gaming is more important than equality and diversity.’
One of the dubious joys of the modern internet, however, is that you can always find alternate views. If you don’t want to read about the importance of inclusivity in gaming, you can choose not to. But saying that it shouldn’t be covered at all is exactly the censorship that GamerGaters say is a bad thing. Again, here’s the Manifesto: “Also like developers, journalists should never actively attempt to censor public opinions.”
But censoring the press is somehow okay? That makes NO DAMN SENSE.
Everyone knows that no one is going to stop Activision from making a new Call of Duty each year, or EA from pushing out endless sports games. And no one wants that to stop (okay, maybe CoD, just a little bit). The point of wanting diversity is not to stop games, but widen what they can be, who they can be for. As Tim Colwill over at Games.on.net said:
Literally the worst possible thing that can happen here is equality. That’s the worst outcome, that’s the nightmare scenario. If, today, every AAA publisher said “We will start to include women more in our games and represent them better”, the only actual difference this would make to anybody shrieking about how feminists are destroying games is that they might have to pick their gender in the next Call of Duty game. Terrifying, isn’t it. Stuff of nightmares.
Terrible, terrible nightmares. I don’t know how we can sleep at night.
No time for love, Dr Jones!
So, let’s talk about objectivity. But first, let me show you what objectivity would look like in a game review, courtesy of objectivegamereviews.com. This is that’s site take on Counter Strike: Global Operations.
Players run faster if they have their knife or sidearm out. Guns dropped by dead players can be picked up by other players and the game notes who the weapon originally belonged to in the spectator screen. The models of the characters alter depending on the map that is being played. Players can download replays of matches they were in or of tournament matches and watch them.
Objectivity means feature lists. It means frame rates, colour ranges, and polygon counts. Objective game reviews would be identical from one site to the next.
Objectivity, as I recently told one of our interns, is really boring.
It’s also completely inappropriate when it comes to games. How can you review something that is designed to elicit an emotion, a personal response, while adhering to the demands of ‘objective journalism’? How could someone write about Journey, or the ending of Halo: Reach (which, I freely admit, made me cry like a sad Spartan)?
Basically, you can’t. In all the sites, in all the world, the one thing each writer has is their voice, and the capacity for games writing to be beautiful and challenging and creative should not be squandered and lost because opinions are sometimes scary, or might make people uncomfortable.
And really, that’s part of the job. One saying that keeps getting bandied around by a lot of GamerGaters (and, yes, that is getting increasingly sillier sounding the more I type it) is that old chestnut about the point of journalism: 'Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.'
That’s George Orwell, and he’s bang on. But what GamerGaters forget is that it cuts both ways. Not only should we, as games writers, be keeping publishers honest, we should also be doing the same for our readers – it’s not our job to just write just what you want to hear.
And public relations isn’t our job.