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Over the past few months, people have been discussing corruption in video games media loudly on consumer based websites such as YouTube, Reddit, and Twitter. Silence in the mainstream media is because it is the source of the controversy. No-one has been at the centre of this controversy more than Kotaku, a video-gaming and geek culture website owned by Gawker media, for its questionable practices
Totilo argues that Kotaku’s main objective is to entertain, and this, in his eyes, is more important than any disclosure issues the website might have. There is some validity to this. While Kotaku is well known for its sometimes off topic click-bait articles such as, “Underpants for phones offer much needed protection and giggles”, “Sims 4 nudity mods have become really detailed” and “I don’t want my OK cupid dates to know I like video games”, and the content of these is often limited and low quality, but I personally believe the internet is big enough for this kind of content, and the entertaining nature of it can fill a hole for people who simply wish to waste time.
Kotaku also gets some things right which many media outlets still fail to grasp. Kotaku tries to distance itself from pre-release reviews, which is only a good thing, as we saw with Sim City the difference between playing it at a review event and in the real world is very different. Kotaku has also done away with review scores, as Totilo points out, distilling the experience of something as subjective as a game to a number can be extremely problematic.
I would also like to give Kotaku the benefit of the doubt in terms of disclosures. Nathan Grayson wrote an article about a failed Game Jam, citing 2 good friends as his sources. One friend wished to fund her own Game Jam. Grayson also plugged his other friend’s title “Soundself” 6 times in 3 months. He did this without disclosure of his relationships with these people. Another Kotaku writer, Patricia Hernandez, also wrote a gushing article about the same female developer without disclosing their friendship. Hernandez also promoted ex-lover and indie developer’s work, where she made abnormal amounts of calls to action to buy the game without disclosure of their relationship, and wrote a huge 6 articles on a former housemate’s work, again without disclosure.
These are obviously ethical breaches. But as Totilo points out that lines between professional relationships and friendships can sometimes get murky. While it is clear from the way Hernandez wrote the articles, where she tries to distance herself from the developers claiming she gained information purely through emails and hearsay, she knew that her behaviour was unethical, I believe that with Kotaku’s extremely low standard for journalism, and the fact that they publish articles every 30 minutes, she thought that no-one would care. Grayson and Hernandez, made human errors based on the tragic state of gaming media as a whole, and not irreparable ethical breaches.
There are far more worrisome ethical problems going on at Kotaku. Here are several cases of articles which Kotaku has published, and the shocking real life consequences for those involved, simply for clickbait and page views.
A team of student Dutch developers created a game about a raccoon in space. It was called Starcoon. Unaware of the connotation of the name in America, Kotaku put out a hit piece forcing the team to change their name at a great cost. Kotaku then further used their successful harassment of these developers to attack the Washington Redskins.
Kate Cox released a hit piece on David Jaffe, creator of Twisted Metal, who in a 2 hour press conference, made a joke, that if you let a lady friend win at co-op she would “suck your dick.” While the joke was clearly in poor taste, the actions of Cox lead Jaffe to be harassed and dehumanised despite apologising for his actions. It should be remembered that Mattie Brice who made a similar bad taste joke about killing all men, was defended by many, and refused to apologise.
Patricia Hernandez wrote a hit piece on Max Temkin, creator of Cards against Humanity, after he was cleared of a rape accusation. The article smeared him for his unconfrontational reaction to the accusations and caused him further harassment at an already troubling time. Temkin went on to remove the rape jokes from Cards against Humanity, a game known for its dark humour.
Kotaku further smeared and blacklisted David Prassel of Spiral Games after he fired members of the company for theft. The sources used were the disgruntled employees without checking their facts. As such, Prassel’s name was mud in the industry and few wanted to work with him.
Another article was released about journalist Josh Mattingly, when his private facebook messages with a female developer were released. In the messages Mattingly drunken asked the developer if he could kiss her on the vagina. While Mattingly had already apologised to his friend, the press blew the story up and Mattingly lost his job.
Jason Schreier launched an attack against George Kamitami, artist of Dragon’s Crown, dedicating a whole article which stated his drawings were done by a 14 year old boy. The argument spiraled and many denounced Dragon’s Crown for its provocative art style. The game received low critical success.
Most damningly Kotaku attacked Brad Wardell after an ex-employee attempted to sue him for sexual harassment. The article contained glaring errors, demonising Wardell, such as saying that he then attempted to sue her. Wardell could not comment for legal reasons, and a year later when the case was dropped and the former employee made to apologise, Kotaku followed up the case in an article suggesting, that this doesn’t mean he didn’t sexually harass her. Wardell has received several death threats over the case, and has found it hard to find clients who will work with him without associating him with the dropped charge.
Kotaku however, does not only attack individuals but groups. It’s known for infantilising Japan and its culture and therefore trivialising real problems .Their representation of Japan does little to properly express Japanese culture, instead maintaining the crazy Japan stereotype, and further dehumanises its population.
Kate Cox attacked gamers who were disappointed by Mass Effect 3’s ending, despite their fair criticisms. This was mirrored in Luke Plunkett’s death of an identity article, opposing the identity of gamers and “thoughtful, considerate human beings.” It seemed strange to me that a video gaming website would try to be alienating its audience, but one has to realise that the audience is not the consumer here, advertisers are, the audience is merely the product. Controversial articles after all produce clicks.
As a woman, what leaves the sourest note in my mouth is Kotaku’s coverage of women in the industry. You never hear of Kim Swift or Robin Hunicke and there is silence on the grounds of how to elevate more women into the industry. Instead there is scaremongering. When clicks are produced by controversy it’s much better to write about the tiny number of women running from their homes, who feel unwelcomed and who are harassed, than it is to write of the vast majority who feel loved and welcomed in the industry. When the narrative is formed this way, women see video gaming development as a battle ground which they daren’t enter, it creates fear and hate. If you want more women in the industry, stop writing these articles, or at the very least put them in context.
The time when a website is ruining people’s lives, careers, and chasing women out of the gaming industry, is the time when action should be taken. Kotaku does not have to be your gaming media. Kotaku is dead.