Disclosure: There was an attempted blacklist against me via the GameJournoPros Google group which DeepFreeze covers in an article. I discuss both within this editorial along with my reasoning behind my assessment. TechRaptor is also listed as an “ethical alternative” on the site. [Update: As mentioned in the article, DeepFreeze promotes TechRaptor as an “ethical alternative”; a decision by DeepFreeze’s owner which TechRaptor had no input in.]
GamerGate’s ethics-related grievances against games and mainstream press are well known at this point, but for those looking-in from the outside it has been difficult to obtain consistent specifics.
On May 6, GamerGate published an online database, DeepFreeze.it, designed and hosted by GamerGate member BoneGolem. It contains links to previous allegations (proof according to some) — most initially posted on 8chan or the KotakuinAction (KiA) subreddit — of ethical wrongdoing by journalists, freelancers and the publications that employ them. Each article of wrongdoing, which contains a hyperlink to an image, thread or news item, is tallied up on journalist profiles. At the time of writing this article, ex-Gamasutra/current Offworld editor Leigh Alexander stands at the top of the list with 17 marks against her, Polygon’s Ben Kuchera and Kotaku’s Nathan Grayson are tied for second with 11 entries.
DeepFreeze provides a clear, transparent raison d’etre for GamerGate —despite many attempts at wikis and press packages, the movement lacked a place to go for the uninitiated to understand what GamerGate supporters are upset over. Though it is a work-in-progress, adding and removing posts/entries daily, it gives those within and outside the movement a place to evaluate GamerGate’s claims and the rebuttal from its political opponents (see: here and here).
“DeepFreeze is a journalism reference resource, conceived to supply a reader with easy-digestible information to determine the reliability of an individual writer or outlet,” the site describes itself on its About page. The site goes on to clarify its focus isn’t on ethics but rather information that could deem a journalist untrustworthy: “Entries don’t necessarily represent ethical improprieties — they might represent a strong appearance of impropriety, or even unprofessional actions that are not strictly breaches of journalistic ethics.”
Some detractors might see this as an attempt to have wiggle-room around the “ethics in game journalism” stance of GamerGate, while supporters may see it as being a broad resource that lets readers make their own value judgements. In either case, the site is clear in it not being purely driven by violations of journalism code, including other topics that highlight unprofessional behavior. Whether this is a negative or positive for both the site and the perception of GamerGate is only one of many controversial topics that received attention among supporters and opponents of GamerGate this week.
Before getting into specific claims of wrongdoing, let’s examine the overall format of the site and its design. If it’s not clear: DeepFreeze is a site that no game journalist wants to find his or her name on since an appearance signifies unprofessionalism and/or lack of ethics — one journalist listed on the site calls it a “hit list”. Therefore, it’s not fair to list people with no entries. At the time of this writing, the site only hosts one journalist with no entries, but a week ago, the site had four of these, including Anthony Burch (currently a freelancer for Destructoid) and Brian Crecente (Polygon) — personally, I think Crecente is among the most professional game journalists and since the beginning has been open and transparent in his conversations with GamerGate so it’s confusing to see him listed.
It is both to the community and BoneGolem’s credit that these entries were either removed or justified by the addition of non-trivia entries, but some may worry why these zero entries were ever present. The site is a work in progress which explains these non-entry journalists listed, such as Andrew Groen who went from zero to two entries, earlier this month. In general, it seems only fair that no journalist be added to the database without at least one entry for them to justify the addition.
Groen’s is far from the only controversial entry on the site. Most entries are divisive among GamerGate’s opponents, while some are stirring debate among GamerGate members. Across the board, DeepFreeze highlights a mix of convincing evidence of unethical behavior by certain members of the videogame press and GamerGate’s ongoing struggle to realize correlation does not imply causation.
Before I dig into examples of the faults of DeepFreeze (and by extension that of GamerGate at large), it must be stated that the site is run by a single person who is updating the site in his free time. BoneGolem describes himself as an extremist left-wing Italian who went from 4chan lurker to GamerGate supporter due to his “hate for corrupt journalism in general.” So far, he’s engaged with the community on possible changes, listened to criticism, and provided thorough details on his goals and intentions for the site. It may not be wise to put one man in charge of compiling the key complaints of GamerGate, as the following examples highlight.
One of the first ethics complaints to come from GamerGate was one of its most laughable, and it’s sad to see it stick around still: Polygon reviewer Arthur Gies lowering his score of Bayonetta 2 due to a perception of sexism in the game.
The entry originally stated he reviewed “with the apparent intent of generating hits through outrage,” which is only slightly less troubling than the idea that a subjective review that includes personal values can be labeled irresponsible, unethical or unreliable at all. The edited entry now states his low score “may be manufactured — and has a strong appearance of being incited for clicks.” Even if Gies seeks attention by giving noticeably unfavorable reviews to well-reviewed games, there is nothing about ethics to discuss unless someone has him on record saying “I did it to piss people off and generate views!” I once gave a Japanese role-playing game a low score and received an onslaught of angry tweets saying that I must hate JRPGs despite some being my favorite games ever. Maybe add an entry for me on DeepFreeze?
Members of KiA, one of GamerGate’s most popular online discussion forums, questioned this entry as well. “The way it is framed right now is accusing them of intentionally giving low scores in order to drum up outrage click,” a user posted. “Which is probably not true.”
With Gies’ history of publicly bullying other journalists and readers on Twitter (especially when he dropped the ball during the SimCity review scandal), it’s a head-scratcher why DeepFreeze highlights this sole item that can easily be debunked. Let’s move on to an entry that finds GamerGate opponents on the defense.
Critics against GamerGate defend PC Gamer editor Tyler Wilde in light of KiA users’ discovery of his relationship with an Ubisoft communications associate, which was never disclosed in his articles covering the game publisher. In his appearances in the excellent PC Gamer Show video series, Wilde comes across as an amiable and sincere person, but his personality doesn’t excuse the mistake he and his publication made. When this news came out, PC Gamer’s staff debated critics on Twitter and deleted a video preview featuring Wilde and an Ubisoft game. Eventually, PC Gamer came around and released this statement, covering Wilde’s editors previous knowledge of the relationship:
It was subsequently decided to remove Tyler from reviewing Ubisoft games. What we ought to have done was remove him from all Ubisoft coverage, or disclosed his relationship as part of the stories he went on to write.
The defense some cling to is that he didn’t review Ubisoft games so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that there is a journalist who is supposed to depict companies in a fair, honest way that represents the reader’s interest while having a relationship with a person whose job is to represent a company in the way that best suits the CEO. It’s about as black-and-white as you can get when it comes to conflict-of-interest in journalism. Wilde and PC Gamer seemed to have learned from the experience but it appears some of DeepFreeze’s critics have not.
There is enough criticism to go around for both GamerGate opponents and supporters, so let’s return to another troubling entry. Polygon reviewer Danielle Riendeau fell under scrutiny in the KiA boards when it was discovered she had preexisting relations with two of the people behind indie darling Gone Home, which she gave a perfect score to on Polygon in 2013.
The problems with this claim are numerous. Firstly, the relationships with these two men are not equal. Her relationship with Gone Home co-designer Steve Gaynor is limited to a single tweet, as far as we know, which is not a relationship by most standards. By contrast, her relationship with composer Chris Remo is a well-documented, self-admitted one dating back to his time at Irrational Games in 2010. Secondly, Remo isn’t an employee at Gone Home developer The Fullbright Company. The developer contracted him for his work on the title.
None of the above excuses the lack of disclosure of the preexisting relationship between Riendeau and Remo, but the amount of information exaggerated is a concern. The inclusion of Gaynor by BoneGolem (and by association, the GamerGate posts he copied) highlights the community’s problems with fact-checking and thinking correlation implies causation.
The most divisive common thread among journalists listed on DeepFreeze is the defunct GameJournoPros (GJP) Google group, which is so elusive and complex that the site has its own article on it, stating:
While membership in and by itself is not a proof of impropriety, the group has undertaken a large number of suspicious activities.
Some members on the GJP list defend it as a useful message board to stay in touch with the industry and collect opinions on diverse subjects, while a former member stated: “The informal pressure to “fall in line” with the groupthink was very strong.”
In a letter from Polygon Editor-in-Chief Chris Grant, he defended the group by comparing it to traditional journalist social clubs:
I live in Philadelphia, home of the Pen & Pencil Club, a similarly private social club for journalists that’s been in existence since 1892. This is where journalists from the Philadelphia Inquirer, a newspaper that won 17 Pulitzers in 15 years, would get drinks with journalists from competing papers and discuss, what else? Work.
The difference between a local social club and GameJournoPros is that one includes 150+ members across the entire industry, including award show judges and game PR, who actively discussed things such as hiring, who to fire, how to manage each others’ sites and interest in getting into PR on an hourly basis. At best, it eroded the boundary between journalists and the industry it covers, disregarding readers’ trust. At worst, collusion and illegal activity.
In addition to pressuring editors to fall in line with those on the list who had sway, the list served as a way for young writers to get into the industry. Even those who fundamentally disagreed with the existence of the list found it necessary to join it in order to forward their career in games writing. The existence of a list is unethical and some of the actions of it, including blacklisting, are illegal.
Along with some members feeling it a necessary evil, some were ignorant of all that occurred within it, never contributed, or outright forgot they were ever added to it. This opens up a question: Should presence of a GJP member be enough to list a journalist on DeepFreeze? What about Greg Tito, who stood up against pressure to run his site by the group’s suggestions, or Mike Futter, who shot down the proposal for journalists to send a developer a sympathy gift in light of recent online harassment?
To reiterate from above, DeepFreeze’s stated goal is to list information that suggests a journalist is unreliable, not necessarily unethical. While GJP wasn’t formed to commit unethical acts nor were they common, these acts occurred and members remained silent — whether out of ignorance, fear of dissent or agreement is irrelevant to a reader looking for reliable journalism. Members of GJP apply this logic to GamerGate but refuse to accept how it applies to itself. Furthermore, there continues to be a reluctance among members to denounce or even discuss the attempted blacklistings within the group or decision to include game industry (both developers and PR) in a group supposedly about “gamejournos.” I don’t know of any game journalists who ever left the group, but I do know of past colleagues who refused to ever join it, such as Jim Sterling.
Call it guilt by association, but DeepFreeze isn’t stating a journalist is unethical solely for being a part of that group. It is information that a reader will find relevant when questioning how reliable a reporter is, especially if the reporter is defending GJP in GamerGate-related articles. Like the majority of DeepFreeze entries, it gives information that will help readers make their own value judgements.
It’s a necessity that DeepFreeze entries are based on factual, sourced information, leaving the value judgement to readers not entries. What is relevant enough for an entry will continue to be a point of contention for the site. Take me for an example. I’m criticized and supported for the same minimize harm clause in the SPJ Code of Ethics. Some GamerGate supporters believe I was right for revealing the identity of a transgender developer in an effort to end a fraudulent charity (claimed money was for post-car crash surgery, was for SRS) and alleged online death threats toward charity staff, while GamerGater opponents believe I was unethical for divulging that the developer was transgender, a detail perceived to be irrelevant. I agree with my detractors now, but that hasn’t stopped it from being a topic heavily debated between the two groups. Not all ethical violations are viewed equally it seems.
To make DeepFreeze more fair to all journalists, BoneGolem started a public discussion on which GamerGate pro/neutral reporters to add to the list. No one is spared, including TechRaptor’s own unflattering blunders. This is a good step toward DeepFreeze being perceived as a fair site; it may do well to also remove its “ethical alternatives” which can be misconstrued as an ad banner, creating a possible conception DeepFreeze is propaganda paid by featured blogs .
For all the valid ethics discussions GamerGate brought to attention, it has also spurred an unhealthy climate among journalists, even myself. I question: at what point could I be perceived as being chummy with a developer or another journalist due to a handful of tweets? Ideally, with sourced information, DeepFreeze users can judge for themselves what is a meaningful conflict or not (as I had regarding Riendeau). Will reporting on developers I follow on Twitter be relevant enough to earn me a DeepFreeze entry? Though facts don’t change, relevance is a value judgement that will always make DeepFreeze a site that echoes its community’s views, limiting its potential audience.
It may be coincidence that AirPlay, a game journalist focused ethics discussion moderated by a SPJ member, appeared the same week as DeepFreeze. GamerGate has long stood by its anonymous, unstructured nature, but these two organizations are forcing the group to highlight its biggest ethical complaints and promote its leaders for the AirPlay panel.
Even if nothing comes of either, we have come closer to understanding GamerGate as it has with itself. It wouldn’t be the first upset public group that found structure when forced into it by necessity. For the first time in the group’s history, there is an organized way to highlight, debate, and debunk grievances against game journalists. There are people, like BoneGolem and the to-be-determined Airplay panel, to hold accountable in how they represent the views of GamerGate. The best thing I can say about DeepFreeze right now is that I had to constantly revise sections of this article since starting it a week ago, due to constant corrections the site underwent.
Game journalists poke fun at an erroneous DeepFreeze entry, while appearing disgruntled over the ones that ring true. Elsewhere on Twitter, GamerGate supporters defend and attack the same entries. For once, it seems people on both sides are all talking about the same ideas and topics, instead of focused on petty acts of defaming and harassing. It’s an obstacle that few conflicting online groups ever get over. It’s progress.