There has been much talk about censorship lately in the gaming world. We see numerous articles posted on the topic, with passionate opinions being shared, or in extreme cases pushed upon people. Even TechRaptor has had its share of discussions on censorship and what it means for video games.
This past weekend, however, has seen that topic come to a head again, this time with aggregate website N4G being in the crosshairs. One of the webs largest aggregate websites, N4G has come under fire recently over the removal of certain content, in this case, content relating to the #GamerGate movement. The content in question was an article by The Gaming Ground, which interviewed Mark Kern, who in turn was talking about censorship and gaming while promoting his website, League for Gamers.
Kern is a long-time game developer who has worked with companies such as Naughty Dog and Blizzard Entertainment. He was also the CEO Red 5 Studios where worked on the game Firefall, before he was ousted from his position in 2014. Currently, the information regarding his departure is disputed; Kern has been relatively quiet on the subject, while PR from Red 5 has noted he was voted out of his position. Other posts on Reddit have claimed that he was forcibly removed.
Regardless, Kern has recently worked on the title Voxelnauts and has been focusing on his website League for Gamers instead of development, which he founded in 2012 as a direct response to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the ESA’s support for the bill. League for Gamers was created as a social media and advocacy group, a task that Kern has revived recently in the wake of the #GamerGate controversy and is steadily growing followers.
The interview on Gaming Ground itself discussed this, with Kern stating:
Our website is a social media platform that focuses on gamer’s freedom of speech. It lets you start groups and combine features from both Reddit and Twitter to create a place where you can be free to talk about games without heavy-handed moderation. But of course, the website is just a gathering place. The true purpose of LFG is to advocate for gamers to developers, publishers, press and lawmakers. However, to do that, we need strength in numbers.
However, N4G administrator Christopher (@cgoodno) decided not to run the interview by Kern, citing that the content was not in line with current policies for N4G. The major statement by Christopher is as follows, as reported by The Gaming Grounds:
Mark Kern IS NOT CURRENTLY a developer and his site and the topics you present have NOTHING to do with him developing a game or publishing a game at this time.
The goal here is to keep news about video games and not social issue that come from all sides. I have no stance on this other than maintaining a focus of news on N4G. You attempting to throw that as some bias towards the topic isn’t helping you at all nor does it help your cause to label everyone in such a manner because they have site rules that don’t accommodate every bit of social news items like this. Our site is not about social media as it relates to those topics and we made that rule because the site was being overtaken by such topics that spawn from social interactions outside of gaming rather than focusing on actual news related to video games.
The story itself was picked up by Billy D (@williamusherGB) who posted an article discussing the controversy, calling into question Christopher’s decision. Now full disclosure, I have been interviewed by Billy D in the past regarding the eventual closure of my previous journalist position, that of Blistered Thumbs, so we have talked before in general when this interview was conducted before my employment with TechRaptor.
Billy stated that “The most recent incident involves the N4G administrator Christopher, prohibiting content about or from League For Gamers, an online advocacy group that aims to represent the concerns and interests of the gaming community.” Billy argued that this is more censorship on the part of N4G, and even cited examples of stories regarding John “Totalbiscut” Bain and Markus “Notch” Persson that would fall under the stance by Christopher above.
Christopher, however, was interviewed by Andy Frogman (also known as Priest of Gamers) who reiterated his full stance, noting that that the single story regarding League for Gamers is a failed submission based on existing policies. Christopher goes further, stating:
It feels more as a way of introducing @Leage4Gamers and Mark Kern who is about being an advocate of Gamers. Mark Kern is known for developing games, but the conversations held did not relate to his history of development so much more of current issues as it relates to journalism and the skewed voice that the media has versus what actual gamers want. It approached his own thoughts on various “social” issues such as SJWs and similar concepts as well.
The article is not a bad one at introducing people to the site and the person behind it. It actually does a great job of informing the user on “who this is” and “what is he doing” and “why should I care”. But, based on the content, it was obviously not directly about a current issue with a social issue as it relates to a game his is developing (or had developed), but more a general relationship to the current social issues and an aim to provide a place for gamers who feel poorly represented.
The current policy set by N4G is a stance of neutrality, one that is difficult at best to maintain. It should be noted that there are currently several articles on N4G discussing GamerGate, social justice, feminism, censorship, and the current social climate of video games on N4G—pieces that reflect both sides of this debate. Some of these pieces, however, were also done before the policy change Christopher refers to, and are also in the same vein of what Christopher wishes to keep off of N4G.
“We have a requirement that it must directly involve a developer or publisher,” stated Christopher. “So, I can’t say that there is no censorship at all, but the goal is to maintain a focus on our news that is specific to video games as opposed to social issues related to gamers or journalism issues that affect every medium.” Christopher also acknowledges this as a problem, noting numerous articles that fueled the cultural war which he states began to make N4G a more volatile place, one that is “antagonistic and detracting” from the focus of the site in general—a news source.
The stance by Christopher for N4G is a pragmatic one, first and foremost. The current culture is legitimately too raw for a reasonable discussion, so focusing on specific criteria is a step to weed out unnecessary baggage that clings to both sides of the debate. Make no mistake, N4G is also stopping material with a more “social justice” slant as well if it doesn’t pertain to the current criteria—something N4G has the right to do as it wishes with its policies. Its parent company, HAVA media in Sweden, has owned and operated N4G since its creation in 2006, so policy changes regarding what content can be posted are all fair game in this instance.
In fact, Christopher himself is not letting the politics involved in the #GamerGate discussion cloud this judgement as much as possible. Previously, Christopher has expressed points of view that favor diversity in the gaming workforce, and in effect a more “social justice” slant in his own leanings. When asked about his own opinions on #GamerGate by Frogman, Christopher is a bit more reserved:
“As for me personally, I am for ethics in journalism. I can’t complain enough about the lack of journalistic integrity out there. And, honestly, there really just isn’t. The sites are about selling ad space and as long as you keep doing that, the bosses won’t really care what you do. They only matter as soon as they start losing advertisers.
But, I do feel that online harassment, not just of women, is a huge issue. Doxxing, SWATing, general comments of threats towards another. The usual internet trolls who attached themselves to either side made this know.
As far as whether it’s positive or not, I have mixed feelings. I think there are people out there who I wish were more in charge of the whole thing and could become a singular voice to approach things. Mark Kern is definitely someone I’d prefer over others. But, there are negatives as some approach the subject of “you’re either with us or against us” without any care for the fact that not every site has to support them. Many who attack us for our policy fall in this arena. And it has been hard for me to attempt to say “I know, you don’t agree, but this is our policy and we hope you respect it.” Perhaps it’s because I have a problem communicating it properly? I do wish I was wiser in my ability to explain our purpose and reasoning sometimes.
Of course, N4G is not totally innocent, as there is another problem at play here that is woefully unaddressed: transparency. The biggest issue with N4G is the lack of coherent rules regarding posting on their website, with criteria for articles being essentially “hidden” to the majority of users. Even Billy D argued this as a major flaw in the N4G aggregate model, a flaw that has constantly come back to haunt the site in recent months.
Christopher acknowledges this is a problem that has made N4G a controversial site at times. “We have policies that limit who can post opinion-based content so as to not allow anyone to write up an opinion piece and submit it to N4G,” stated Christopher. “People don’t like that. We have a policy in linking to the most original source of content, and people want to link to their site because they ‘explain it better’. People don’t like that.”
It is clear that a more transparent policy system by N4G would eliminate some of the due stress that is caused by such controversies. The current guidelines, for example, do not state any such restrictions of content, only the blog post linked above. So having a more detailed guideline of what can and can’t be submitted would certainly ease future accusations towards the website of censoring material. Of course, N4G is clearly not perfect in filtering out all articles either. As stated before, several articles have been posted regarding #GamerGate and social justice have gotten through on N4G, some of which have little to do with current discussions on game development or publishing. This makes the system itself, one driven mostly by the community in terms of self-policing their own content, flawed when administrators have to step in to enforce the policy.
The bigger issue for some of course is ultimately the charge of censorship of League for Gamers, which the first piece on this by Billy D implies throughout his own article. Christopher’s own comments suggest that the only form of censorship is tied directly to the kind of content allowed on N4G to protect the website, and that the interview by Gaming Grounds fits that bill according to Christopher.
It is arguable that Christopher is splitting hairs in this case, and that is a fair assessment. Kern does discuss his own work as a developer in his original interview and his time recently on the game Voxelnauts, although the discussion later evolves into a “state of the games industry” discussion that Christopher wishes to avoid. It should also be noted that Kern has claimed, according to Gaming Ground, that he is working on a game for his sci-fi universe of Crixia.
However, the accusations that Christopher or N4G are actively trying to censor content related specifically to League for Gamers, or to #GamerGate in general, is highly subjective at best, outright false at worst. It simply seems Christopher is attempting to do the impossible: to be neutral on the whole clash at large. A noble goal indeed, one that all journalists should strive for of course. After all, good ethics in journalism is making such decisions in the end—gathering sources and making a judgement call that is away from personal bias, while simultaneously becoming the arbiters of what is truly newsworthy. Even this editorial, for all of it can be with my own personal opinions, is attempting to judge this as fairly as possible.
And the verdict? This controversy is another example of the growing socio-political divide between supporters and detractors of the #GamerGate scene. It is not to say Kern is wrong, nor Christopher for that matter. In fact, both make some valid points on their stances. It is to say that the politics involved have colored our perceptions, a more dangerous result than people realize. Kern, for his part, has been vocal on Twitter regarding the recent controversy, as have Billy D, Frogman, and Christopher as the conversation continues on social media.
— Christopher (@ChristopherN4G) December 21, 2015
— Mark Kern (@Grummz) December 21, 2015
If nothing else, this entire controversy demonstrates a fatal flaw in the current gaming culture war: the political tribalism attached to such accusations. Billy D is not wrong in pointing out the flaws of N4G, but he is guilty of pre-judging the content as censorship. Christopher is not wrong in saying such content is not allowed on the aggregate site, but it does leave him open to such accusations, especially when the website he works for is not infallible. What makes them opponents here is the perception of “why?” in the end—the stigma that Billy D argues is one of whole hog censorship, whereas Christopher argues for the removal of a flood of articles that have nothing to do with anything gaming related.
It is a culture clash, one where two people, who are likely on the same side of this discussion in the end, are at each other’s throats due to interpretation. Is N4G at fault here? Yes of course, their rules should be more transparent and their content filter should be stronger at catching the kind of articles Christopher has argued against. The original interview by Gaming Ground is also stuck in a complex, gray area; it is part relevant information, part puff piece, part social/cultural commentary all rolled into one interview. In effect, Christopher made a gut call, and it can, and rightfully so, be argued it was the wrong one.
But is the perception of N4G presented by Kern and Billy off the hook either?
In truth, I would argue both Kern and Billy D have fueled this fire further. If it wasn’t for Frogman’s interview, the story would have likely stayed in the perception of N4G censoring League for Gamers, a perception that draws the ire of the staunchest supporters of #GamerGate and League for Gamers in force on social media. Christopher didn’t help his case when he even stated to Billy D that he didn’t want to do an interview, and was seen on Twitter getting into a debate with Billy regarding the rightfully pointed out inconsistencies with N4G.
The fact of the matter remains, however, that the “perceived” offense of N4G censoring any discussions by League for Gamers is inexcusable, borderline libelous against N4G. The problems that persist do the website no credit, but to accuse the website of being biased with anecdotal evidence is just as incredulous in terms of the narrative. If there truly is any evidence of N4G being biased against League for Gamers or against movements such as #GamerGate, then it has yet to be seen outside of this current policy N4G has regarding any social, political, or cultural discussion on the matter. All topics, from #GamerGate, Feminism, and Social Justice, are fair game for being failed submissions. This time, it just happened to be a piece involving Kern.
I can sympathize with Christopher in the end, but even then, it is hard to agree with his stance fully. While he is right that the current cultural discussions are volatile, the need to have these discussions is just as important. What Christopher and N4G are pushing for is a directed take on the current cultural trends, one that is legitimately fair because it is neutral in their eyes. The risk of removing important voices is high, however, when it fails to meet that criteria. In that sense, the interview by Kern does have value; after all, his opinions do carry weight regardless of how you feel about them, and his voice should be heard if possible to provide a counter-argument.
But we must face facts; this is not biased censorship, but rather a situation where N4G is protecting itself and its community as much as possible. In effect, they are censuring material that they feel does not meet their criteria, and there is nothing wrong with self-censuring of what you want on your site. Kern’s voice should be heard, but it needs to follow the criteria set to have a platform on N4G. Social media of course is an equalizer in many respects that allows for Kern and League for Gamers to continue to grow, so even then the need for N4G can arguably become negligible. There are other aggregate sites out there as well, such as Game Wires or VGN, that Gaming Ground or Kern can appeal to if they feel strongly against the policies of N4G.
The only problems with N4G seems to have is their lack of transparency as to what their policies are, a problem that can be rectified if N4G showcases them fully and how inconsistent they have been at enforcing such a policy. That would at least give the people who frequent N4G a guideline of what should be posted there and what they will likely find in the end. Then the people can at least make a decision that is further informed and accusations of censorship would slowly disappear. If nothing else, it will help avoid another controversy like this.
Which in fact, has happened. Last night, Christopher decided to reverse his decision regarding the Kern interview from Gaming Ground and has explicitly pointed to his updated policies in the wake of this controversy. “After a very long discussion with @AndRyFrogman,” says Christopher, “I have decided to unfail this submission under the fact that the policies as outlined previously were not specific enough as it applies to submissions involving developers. In order to account for this, this submission alone will be allowed.”
The decision to reverse the article was the right one here, but it may, however, be too late in this case—perceptions have been made, the damage has been done in terms of the overall outlook of N4G. Billy D posted a follow up article on the situation, while simultaneously keeping his previous article that has accused N4G and Christopher pinned to the top of his twitter feed. Billy D also argues unfavorably for N4G, stating matter of a factly “content or topics like League For Gamers that focuses on lobbying on behalf of gamers and dealing with social issues that may be negatively impacting the game industry, won’t be allowed on the site unless it deals directly with a developer or publisher. Articles about video game journalists being corrupt? Well, those aren’t allowed on N4G.” This, however, is the type of negative practice that supporters of #GamerGate have rallied against: personal views getting in the way of news, in favor of a pulpit that judges information over informing the consumers.
For all of the faults we can befall on N4G as an aggregate site, we should at least be honest in what those faults are and not try to wrongfully accuse a website or a person over a perceived issue. In this case, at least, it feels those accusations made are simply unjust on all accounts.
What do you think about this situation? Leave your comments below.