Wednesday, October 1, 2014

On #GamerGate: the Temperate Chapter

This is a marginally more temperate companion piece to my previous blog post, “On #GamerGate: the RAGE Chapter”.

The following is solely the opinion of Vaulisel and is not intended to reflect the opinions of No Excuses or VtW Productions as a whole.

In 2007, Jeff Gerstmann, editorial director for GameSpot, was dismissed from his post in the wake of his rather critical review of Kayne & Lynch: Dead Men. This review dropped while GameSpot was under a contract to provide publisher Eidos with full site integration advertising for the game in question, and Gerstmann later testified that GameSpot had caved in under pressure from Eidos, resulting in his dismissal[1]. The tinfoil-hat-wearers who had been clamouring for years that the video games media were on the take from publishers finally had a clear-cut case of a writer being fired for giving a meal-ticket game too low a review score for the taste of their outlet’s accountants. From the time of this landmark controversy, the corruption of games journalism passed from fringe conspiracy paranoia into broadly accepted fact. Fast-forward to 2014, and a prominent subset of video games news outlets are at war with a loose affiliation of former members of their core audience, gathering under the hashtag #GamerGate. How did it come to this?

Being the fractious and mercurial collection of individuals that they are, mass mobilisations of self-identifying gamers behind a common cause aren’t an everyday occurrence, but they do happen. In recent years, (disbarred) attorney Jack Thompson and (suspended) senator Leland Yee have both launched attacks on the nation of gamers in accordance with their personal agendas or ideologies, and received in return the sort of bollocking that a diverse cadre of dedicated and passionate people with an intense drive to secure victory can deliver, leaving their reputations and careers in tatters. In light of this, it is startling to see that in the past couple of months, the gaming press, already on shaky ground trust-wise with their audience due to their chequered past, has turned on its conventional audience en masse[2] to slam them with a dozen articles delivering broad-brush generalisations of gamer culture and stereotyping gamers as an ultra-exclusive club of woman-hating manchildren crusading to stamp out diversity in games and diversity in developers. This uncanny synchrony smacks of a concerted attempt to achieve some specific aim, some aim which these major press outlets considered sufficiently important as to risk bringing the combined and focused wrath of their readership down on their heads. 

Possibly the most cynical explanation for this bizarrely anti-consumer behaviour from what should theoretically be pro-consumer edifices is deflection. As many have become aware, the controversy surrounding the allegations of psychological and emotional abuse directed at one Ms. Zoe Quinn, an aspiring indie developer, by her former partner Mr. Eron Gjoni, led to the unravelling of a rich tapestry of close personal and/or financial associations between members of the games development community and games press[3], associations which led to neither disclosure nor recusal when it came to press coverage of the developers involved. Many of these types of close associations (e.g. romantic, close friendship, roommate, funding on Patreon etc.) represent unacceptable breaches of ethics for any respectable journalist according to Dr. Greg Lisby, a specialist in journalistic ethics from Georgia State University[4]. When readers raised these ethical concerns, they were either dismissed out of hand, or the discussions locked or deleted. As it often does, censorship inspired people to dig deeper, under the assumption that there was something to hide. This revealed further suggestions of inappropriate personal and professional ties between journalists and developers. When these allegations were running at fever pitch, Adam Baldwin coined the hashtag #GamerGate as an umbrella for the controversy. Following this, the press struck back with the Gamers Are Dead propaganda campaign.

In any war for public opinion, the one to engage and strike hard first has the advantage. However spurious, dishonest or disingenuous the content might be, the opponent will be forced onto the defensive, and any counter-claims can easily be framed as the tit-for-tat of a disgruntled opposition. In this case, while these dozen or so outlets transparently collaborating to construct a synchronised smear campaign was reckless, going in with all guns blazing paid off for them in spades; they were able to burn their narrative of their detractors being embittered, behind-the-times bigots into the worldview of many neutral onlookers. Leveraging the sheer power that words like “misogynist” and “harassment” have gained as red flags to mark out the bad guys, the press was able to shut out all discussion and inquiry about readers’ ethical concerns by reframing it all as a problem with gamers and their culture which supposedly harasses women. Anyone commenting on the issues raised by #GamerGate is immediately branded a misogynist, and all concerns are dismissed as a cover for the “typical” gamer’s alleged compulsion to abuse women. In this interpretation of the Gamers Are Dead campaign, the journalists and sites accused of an unaddressed lack of ethics have deflected and neutralised the allegations against them through pure weight of massed ad hominem assault, a strategy which many parts of the increasingly relativist internet culture are tragically beginning to accept as a valid tool of debate. As a whole, #GamerGate is grossly offended at being libelled and silenced for raising concerns about the ethics in video games journalism, and so long as neither factor is addressed, they will remain angry and unsatisfied.

A less cynical interpretation of this concerted assault on the gamer identity is genuine and unalloyed zeal for the ideology they champion, of “diversity” and “inclusivity” in gaming. It is hard to dissect this interpretation, because it has a tendency to become very political very quickly. Octale (a.k.a. Todd Wohling) is writing an excellent series of articles called “Good morning, Orthodoxy!”,[5] analysing the pernicious and anti-consumer nature of a lot of the rhetoric these journalists have used in their attempt to displace the extant gamer culture and install a new “orthodoxy”, as he likes to call it, in accordance with their ideals. In truth, from certain point of view, the specifics are irrelevant; the take-home factor from the Gamers Are Dead propaganda is that the writers harbour a deep and abiding distaste for the individuals who identify as gamers: the very individuals who form their audiences, who entrusted them with the task of informing them and helping them to make purchase decisions. This sort of wholesale disrespect and disdain for their readers/customers simply marks out the writers and editors responsible as unsuitable to continue in this line of work, irrespective of how you feel about their personal ideologies and politics. The prevailing feeling in #GamerGate seems to be that a press which is chiefly concerned with foisting politics and ideologies on the readers at the expense of quality and balanced review writing is a press they do not want.

Another angle to interpret Gamers Are Dead from is that of relevance. The large, highly commercial video games journalism sites are in general gratuitously behind the times. It shows in how they wrote their Gamers Are Dead propaganda; the articles are riddled with implications that current gaming culture is an exclusive club for cis-het-white-males, desperately trying to preserve their old-boys’-club by keeping out diversity of participants and suppressing innovation. This is laughably out-of-date; modern gamer culture is one of the most gender/creed/race/orientation/whatever-agnostic subcultures in the word; while any sufficiently large group has its undesirables, bigotry is not an intrinsic part of gamer culture and there is no scientific evidence that it is. Likewise, there are games that might have sexist elements in them, but there is no scientific evidence whatsoever that this encourages misogyny. What gamers really care about is if you can watch their back while they take an objective, or keep them healed through the boss’ enrage phase, or pull off that perfect combo play to gank an opponent. Gamers are always looking to get excited about the next big thing; sure, they did buy the last CoD game or the last Halo, but who do you think is actually buying all those bizarre new indie games out there? It’s not some oppressed underclass of indie-game-playing pariahs, it’s core gamers looking for a new diversion. The games press need to catch up with the times and realise that their rabble-rousing over the gaming hobby supposedly trying to keep new folks out is completely out-of-place; they are the ones who are in denial. And why? Because they need to feel like they have a relevant message. The self-styled games critics and academics writing hit pieces on gamer culture are desperately scratching in the dust for some sort of professional credibility in a market sector bursting at the seams with people trying to break in; what better way to leave a mark on the industry than to spearhead a cultural paradigm shift within it? But newsflash: it already happened; you’re all late to the party and all the good hors d’oeuvres are gone. The ones who stand at the forefront now are the new wave of ascended fans: the enthusiasts and critics posting their videos and let’s plays on YouTube. These are the critics who haven’t become so utterly consumed with their personal quests to legitimise their views and pseudointellectual pontification in the nascent gaming academia that they have become completely disconnected from the world of their audience. Gamers once trusted reviewers because while they might have been “living the dream” of playing games for a living, they were still “one of us” rather than wannabe academics sitting in their homemade ivory towers. What gamers want to hear is whether a game is worth a purchase and a play, not whether some holier-than-thou critic thinks that it will advance their vision of a new game-playing culture founded on political correctness and misplaced guilt. Gamers are first and foremost about PLAY. The most useful critics are those who value play as much as they do. The video games press as it is now, puffed up with pride, ideology and academia just isn’t useful to gamers anymore; if it discards them in an attempt to re-forge an environment where it returns to relevance, gamers will likely discard them in turn. Steam curation stats state pretty clearly that there are more people who want TotalBiscuit’s recommendation on a game than Kotaku’s, by a margin approaching an order of magnitude[6]. Why? Because TB is a gamer. Kotaku is “just” the press.

Regardless of the true objective of the fusillade of criticism launched by the video games press at gamer culture, whether it is sincere or self-serving it is a blatant slap in the face. #GamerGate boils on because these big sites have dug in their heels; they refuse to sincerely confront the allegations against them, they refuse to permit discussion of them within the boundaries of their influence and they refuse to acknowledge the libellous nature of the propaganda they have been spreading. It is gamers who hold the power however; gamers are the ones who click their links, gamers are the ones who give AAA publishers confidence that the press outlets deserve their attention and gamers are the ones who convince advertisers that it is worth using the press outlets for marketing.

It is in the hands of gamers to choose if they will support or strangle the publications and journalists who slander and dismiss them. Continue the campaign of starving the offending sties of clicks. The Gamers Are Dead rhetoric can be made just as dangerous to those that published it as it is to the gaming culture it condemns. Advertisers can (and have) been informed of the poor journalistic ethics of these sites. AAA publishers marketing to gamers in conjunction with the offending sites can be told by their target demographic “Oh, Gamers Are Dead, so we can’t buy your product”; the bigger dent gamers make in their profits, the better. Make them recognise the gamer voice. The actions that make an impact here are those that are in keeping with the character of #GamerGate as a consumer revolt. Engaging in debate with ideologues is seldom profitable; they are ideologues because they can’t be shaken from their points of view. Engaging those who attack #GamerGate with nothing more than blind slander is a waste of time; they have demonstrated a lack of will to investigate the #GamerGate controversy before becoming a mouthpiece against it. Do distribute the resources, information and viewpoints of #GamerGate[7] freely so those neutrals so inclined can find the information they need to decide for themselves where they stand. Do unequivocally condemn acts of genuine harassment by anyone claiming to support #GamerGate. Do support those who have fallen afoul of the tactics of #GamerGate’s detractors; those who lost their jobs, those who have been threatened, those who have been doxed; make sure they know that as a community, the nation of gamers has their back. 

There’s no knowing how long this will drag on; it could be a short-term consumer revolt which causes the iron fist of AAA publishing marketing departments to intervene on #GamerGate’s behalf to save their holiday season bottom-line, or it could be a protracted culture war which drags on for months or years while neutrals prop up a corrupt press which has its head in the sand. But don’t give up; gamers are consumers and money speaks, so make sure it says words that count.

Remember, Gamers Aren’t Dead; they just respawn to fight again.

[Disclosure: Todd Wohling is a former co-owner of VtW Productions. I was also his raid leader for a while in WoW, if that matters.]

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