When we last left off, I had done my best to highlight the key duties of journalists, critics, and readership in preparation for today’s topic: failure. When we first began on this odyssey I made the assertion that responsibility for the state of the industry fell at the feet of multiple parties and is the culmination of sins both great and small. We’re now going to attempt to chronicle these sins one by one to illustrate how a few cracks in the foundation caused the whole house to collapse on itself.
Communication Breakdown and Accountability Dodgeball
In many cases these sins can be clinically diagnosed as symptomatic of an acute—or in the case of some outlets, chronic—lack of integrity. Somewhere in their reporting or reviewing they may have failed to disclose a personal relationship or a financial tie to the product, event, or person in question. It could be a situation as seemingly innocuous as forgetting to mention that the game they’re critiquing was an unsolicited gift, or as blatant as reporting on a game that they’re financially invested in. Maybe they made multiple articles about a friend’s game without being forthcoming about their relationship. Regardless, these are all fairly cut and dry cases of a conflict of interest that should, under FTC guidelines, be clearly disclosed to the public to ensure that no one is profiting at the cost of consumer trust.
It could be that they overstepped their bounds in their role as a gatekeeper. They looked at an event and decided that, despite public outcry, that it was not in the interest of their readers to pursue an investigation of a conflict of interest. These reasons have run the gamut from “Nathan Grayson’s sex life isn’t our business” to “it doesn’t fall within our purview of video games.” While I tend to agree that a person’s sex-life isn’t necessarily our business and that the way in which the relationship was brought to light is, frankly, verging on the boundaries of revenge porn, the discussions and questions of ethical conduct that these events sparked were thrown out with the bathwater under the umbrella of not giving a platform to a “misogynist hate-group.” To wit:
There are some beating the #GamerGate drum who sincerely believe that it’s not related to misogyny or the persistent attacks on Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn, that it’s simply about keeping the games press accountable. It’s impossible to extricate that hashtag from its roots, though, which grew out of unconscionable smears and threats against two prominent women in gaming merely because they are prominent women in gaming.
— Garrett Martin, Paste
Here Garrett handwaves questions of ethics simply because it came in the same breath as harassment.
Or perhaps in their roles as gatekeepers they were quick to fire off an article without properly vetting their sources or present unsubstantiated claims as facts. One need look no further than the oft-quoted Godfrey Elfwick to see a case study in a complete and total failure in terms of ensuring the credibility of a source.
It’s also totally within reason that they simply refuse to hold themselves accountable. Once again, this is the Wild West. Publications rise and fall, and without some sort of strictly enforced regulations or mandatory membership to an organization, it can be incredibly difficult to pin down squirmy journalists who dismiss criticisms of their work by claiming to be something other than a journalist. Cultural critic, blogger, journalist, citizen-journalist—these are all masks that can be donned and discarded as the need arises. As Michael Koretzky once said:
I don’t know if she [Leigh Alexander] is claiming to be a journalist or not, and if she’s not claiming to be a journalist she can do it all day long [writing to push an agenda] and I don’t care.
If she’s working for a journalism site or she’s posting to a jounalist’s site where the reader has a reasonable expectation that what they are reading is journalism, then I have a problem
The danger here being that the layman may look upon their work and believe it to be the work of a journalist, and therefore view it as an objective, well-researched piece rather than an off-the-cuff agenda-driven blog post. Whether intentional or not, it is dishonest.
Worse still is the case of an outlet that has reaffirmed its dedication to ethics only to refuse to acknowledge or correct apparent conflicts of interest. In this case it has become an institutional and intentional problem with dishonesty and poises the outlet to become a harbor for offenders where they can continue acting in bad faith with no reprisal.
While critics are often perfectly capable of stirring up controversy and firing shots across the bow, they may sometimes have an inability to field criticism or questions they deem as insulting. As mentioned before, the purpose of a critic is to spark thought and stimulate dialogue. If you say that a particular game is sexist, you’re putting forth an argument that’s likely to offend someone. That person may go into your comments section and leave you some guttural utterances that resemble a counter-point typed out by a cat with capslock on or an immaculate manifesto that takes it upon itself to provide a point-by-point dismantling of your position. Either way, you’ve created some semblance of a dialogue.
This gets noticeably ugly if, rather than encouraging discussion or addressing constructive criticism, you shut down your comments section, roll out a story about how anyone who disagrees with you is a wailing piss-baby, and ban any user that so much as shows a single stripe of a dissenting view point. Most of these outlets have user agreements that can be stretched to fit practically any situation they deem problematic, and it’s perfectly within their rights to do so. However, it’s incredibly difficult for someone to take you seriously if you’re dispensing criticism from an ivory tower defended by block-bots and a quarantined comments section. I dare not point to the utter hypocrisy of a critic that cannot take criticism. It’s one of those unspeakably ironic situations where surely somewhere in the vast unknown of the universe an entire planet spontaneously disintegrates to balance out the phenomena that was created by such a staggering instance of logical incongruity.
It could be that you failed to educate yourself or be well-versed on your topic. In this particular case, the outlet was quick to offer a humble apology. In some cases the demonstrable knowledge of the critic is so unapologetically shallow that only the most ill-informed individual, or someone merely looking to reaffirm their beliefs, will take them at face value. At best the perpetrator was just lazy and never bothered to familiarize themselves with the material, while at worst they were willfully ignorant or academically dishonest in presenting themselves as an authority or their position as the predominant theory. While nothing is stopping them from pursuing this jaunt into self-gratification, they must be mindful of their audience. Enthusiasts who are familiar with the subject will be able to tell when someone hasn’t bothered to do their homework or have purposely omitted information to lend a false legitimacy to an argument, especially if it’s being used to smear them.
I can personally think of no greater infraction than to intentionally ignore and bury inconvenient truths for the sake of propping up a flimsy argument. It is a nefarious sort of lie that requires quite a bit of footwork to unmask and relies largely on complacency on the part of the audience. Only a snake oil salesman or an extremist would use this approach, and its consequences can be damning for the critic upon revelation of their deception or destructive to the public if left unchecked.
Maybe it’s anger that lands a would-be journalist in turbulent waters. Rather than attacking conventions or tropes, a critic has decided to levy the weight of their wit upon their detractors and engage in a little recreational ad-hominem. Maybe they write a hit-piece or go on a slur-ridden rant on social media, or share someone’s comment and contact info with their 30,000+ followers secure in the knowledge that the problem will now take care of itself.
Thus far we’ve mostly talked about the crimes of the media, but the reader, too, should be culpable for their hand in all of this.
The most common crime committed by readership is interpreting a challenge to their ideas as a personal attack. Having your preconceived notions prodded and poked can be an uncomfortable but necessary experience to becoming a better person, even if it’s seemingly unsolicited. As we’ve previously touched upon, it’s invaluable to a critic that they be able to speak their mind without fear of their audience so that they can introduce new concepts and ideas to their readership. The word entitlement gets thrown around a lot lately, but in some cases it’s appropriate.
So when someone at Polygon tells you that The Witcher 3 is racist because it has no people of color, you can be angry—just don’t be surprised. By now it should be crystal clear that Polygon has an interest in social advocacy. It’s their angle and what makes them unique as a publication. They’re going to attempt to push that angle at every turn.
That’s the way discourse works. It would be great if we could all come to conclusions as a group, as a culture, as a person naturally, but often it takes a bit of a jab to get discussion flowing. That being said, if there’s no discussion, then it was a big waste of time.
It’s possible that in the past an outlet may have alienated you with their position and it’s hard to take them seriously, but ultimately it’s their show and they can run it how they want. Trying to cut their advertising revenue based solely on the fact that you disagree with their politics or opinion is flatly inexcusable. Attacking ad revenue should be a measure of last resort and only utilized when it’s a clear-cut violation of FTC-mandated guidelines and all diplomatic channels have failed. I’m aware that a good deal of contacting advertisers was a direct response to continued ethical lapses, but it needs to be put on paper that it shouldn’t be used simply because you’re not aligned on politics. I remember the first few waves of mail went out based off of Leigh Alexander’s vitriolic description of gamers as wailing hyper consumers. I still have the infographs and remember the tongue-in-cheek mantra of “No bad tactics” in reference to MovieBob’s infamous statement.
The reason you want to be reluctant when selecting the nuclear option is because it fosters an incredibly hostile environment that’s not conducive to finding a middle ground. Additionally, it’s very much the same as someone calling your work place and trying to get you fired on the basis of being a vocal #GamerGate supporter. It’s the very thing that makes developers uncomfortable to publicly address #GamerGate and stands as a sterling example of McCarthyism. People should not be silenced for their political views but punished for their failures to adhere to industry standards or basic tenants of ethical conduct.
Another way in which readers have failed is the prevalence of brigading. Rather than addressing a problem directly, they mobilize large groups of people to bomb out aggregate sites or social media to silence opposition. A recent example would be Fallout 4, which has received mostly positive scores from critics—though I’m sure the rebuttal is they were paid for their score—but a disproportionate amount of “0s.” This has happened in the past when people have felt slighted by developers, either because of a mangled port or a crappy ending. Here is one of my favorites from the Fallout 4 raid:
It’s basically the opposite of “shilling,” and all it does is create confusion when people attempt to use an aggregate site as a good measure of a games popularity or quality but without any of the context. That being said, there are some very real concerns with Fallout 4, particularly if you’re on PC.
The Path to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions … and Spaghetti
Having examined some of the many ways in which these three groups of people can fail to uphold their role, it would behoove us to take a moment to consider how someone can fall into these habits. After all, many of these prominent personalities in games journalism that have come under heavy fire used to be a vanguard that defended the gaming community from baseless accusations. How could they turn from champion to pariah? Was it an unnoticeable, incremental transition or were wolves among the sheep the entire time? With a bit of imagining we will now attempt to empathize with them in an attempt to demystify their motivations. It’s best to think of this as a mental exercise, or needless supposition if you must, rather than a record of what actually happened.
We should look first to the indie revolution. At a time when sequel after sequel was being pushed out by EA and Activision, new tools for digital distribution, easy game development, and revolutionary funding platforms gave rise to the independent developer. This grass-roots DIY scene seemingly sprang up overnight and tackled games and genres that traditional publishers wouldn’t touch because they were too busy taking the safe-bet. Old dungeon crawlers, platformers, and other genres that had fallen by the wayside were given a new lease on life. It was a reason to be excited about video games again.
As we talked about before, one of the duties of a journalist is to lend voice to the voiceless. The indie-game revolution poised a perfect opportunity to do just that. These small indie teams didn’t have the marketing budget or reach of the triple-A developers and relied on journalists to get info about their games out to the people. Without representation, these devs often served as their own PR department conversing directly with journalists. It’s not inconceivable that in these close interactions the journalist didn’t get attached to these brave upstarts. Afterall, it was an ill-kept secret that AAA’s had been trying to buy publications for years with wine-and-dine visits, lavish gifts, and ad money. Why wouldn’t journalists be eager to prop up some competition that desperately needed their help in a bid to slay corpulent, publicly-traded companies that grew fat on tired iteration after tired iteration of done-to-death franchises?
In my limited dealings with indie-game developers, I’ve found them largely endearing—they’re hungry, and they want to succeed. Sometimes their excitement is contagious. Rubbing elbows with these people day in and day out, how could you not get attached? You hear their stories—mortgages and loans, their dissatisfaction with traditional development cycles, their hopes riding on the backs of the products they were creating with their bare-hands. Like an anarcho-syndicalist they had seized the means of production and were taking ownership and financial burden for their own goods. These were pioneers set out for the unknown. How could you not want them to succeed, even if their products sometimes fell a little short of the sort of polish people expected from developers? They’ve got spunk and moxie, and goddamnit, you want them to succeed because it means the industry can be something different, something better, than what it had been for so many years!
That’s an altruistic, ultimately misguided, example that may exist only within the confines of my mind. I know it must be an issue, however, because it’s one that I struggle with every time I review a game from a small developer: the burden of having to judge someone else’s work when they rely on it for their income. It’s certainly not the same as laying waste to a AAA game from a corporation that can take a hit or two in the stock market, even though functionally the only difference between the people developing indie games and AAA games is the intimacy.
Of course, it could be just a case of greed. Some good ‘ol dirty money may be the motivator. We’re all guilty of it—clicking on a link with a sensationalist title just to see what it’s about. I know from looking at my own metrics that the more inflammatory your article, the more views it gets. Who doesn’t like a spectacle? Controversy draws a crowd, and it may have been their mission from the onset to stir up as much dust as they can and watch the comments section duke it out like the blood pits of Rome. That’s not even factoring in things like review copies, gifts from publishers, and trips to industry conventions. The press has no allegiance to you—like an arms dealer it can go from controversy to controversy profiteering from conflict while siding itself with the morally righteous to put itself beyond the reach of criticism.
Or maybe they saw it as an opportunity to elevate art or empower a minority. They thought there was no harm in writing some favorable pieces about friends because the industry would ultimately benefit from their inclusion. They were the avant-garde, pushing boundaries and expanding the diversity of the industry by hook or by crook because they figured it would all come out in the wash once people saw what they had to offer. Never is it easier to justify your actions than by asserting that it was for the greater good.
Perhaps it was only convenient for them to defend gaming from a conservative authoritarian figure, such as the government or lawyers or people who they felt already had enough power. Once the question of their practices were raised by the people they formerly defended, they adopted the very same tactics and mannerisms of the institutions they once fought against. In fighting monsters, they had become monsters themselves. They reached into their newly acquired bag of tricks and dragged out all sorts of disparaging labels like “misogynist,” “transphobic,” “violent” … an entire arsenal of defamatory rhetoric meant to discredit concerns rather than address them.
I can think of no less a primal motivator than fear. A journalist may see themselves “stuck” in games journalism like a drama student may be forced to the unsavory craft of street performance, or dare we mention Miming, building up a sense of self-loathing and contempt for their audience stemming from their own misery. For all we know, this could have been a mad bid to legitimize gaming journalism by giving it a waft of social awareness to make it less embarrassing to reveal their profession at dinner parties, so caught up in their fervor to escape the event horizon of mediocrity that they never realized the first step to legitimacy is integrity.
We’re also talking about a format that’s being threatened by YouTubers and Let’s Players. There is a very real and palpable fear that the nouveau riche are edging them closer to the precipice of irrelevancy in an industry that’s replete with free content. It’s been a long fermenting rivalry that appears to be coming to a head.
There’s also something to the idea that they don’t want to be puppets that simply act as facilitators that hype products to consumers. As a reviewer, I get that there’s nothing glamorous about summarizing whether a game is worth your money or not. Certainly there are many aspects of gaming to cover, but there’s no denying that it’s the most utilitarian service that a critic can provide in terms of practicality. How else would people know whether a game is shovelware or an earnest attempt at an unique, or at least entertaining, experience?
A lot of motivation on the part of the reader can be explained as either feeling as though they’re being misrepresented or their opinion is not being heard. Anger is the closest within reach when you feel as though you are being marginalized by an outlet that you may have spent a lot of time and loyalty on. While it’s not unreasonable for a publication to grow or shift focus, often changes in paradigm may alienate a subset of users who may have been content with the way things were. There are, of course, people with very extreme world views that a publication would have trouble mollifying and shouldn’t be expected to in a civilized society.
There’s also a fear that these very vocal minority publishing outlets have more pull than is proportionate to the audience they command, a general sentiment that their gatekeeping isn’t merited. Worried gamers can only look on as these publications constantly hammer games that don’t meet their social criteria and are fearful that developers will cave to appease them, either by censoring their games or perhaps being hesitant to even approach certain themes or concepts for fear of reprisal. This has often been framed as a fear of diversity, or the death throes of a fanbase that’s on the wrong side of history. Their condescending assuaging of “We’re not here to take your games” seems to run contrary to the fact that a good chunk of games coming from Eastern markets are having to censor their products to avoid reactionary backlash.
There are of course trolls and village idiots that have made it their life’s work to be as disruptive as possible for their own entertainment, like recently unmasked Joshua Goldberg.
What do all these scenarios have in common with one another? Each one is rooted in the cardinal sin of pride. Not just pride, but hubris. Regardless of what actually happened, it’s clear from their actions that at some point these people decided that they knew what was best for the industry, or that they wouldn’t get caught, or that they were somehow excused due to their connections or past contributions. Whether it was a gradual slide into corruption or a hedonistic Bacchanalia into cartoonish evil, they ultimately assumed that they would never be called out for their actions.
Upon questions of integrity and ethical practices they reacted indignantly, clearly having a moment of “Who are you to question me?” or relying on the intrinsic, memetic value of words like “progressive” to shield them from criticism. Tossing around labels is incredibly effective on a battlefield that’s dominated by 140 character blurbs. By casting #GamerGate as a movement of bigots, harassers, misogynists, and useful idiots, they hoped that it would put any questions about their behavior to the torch by association, and they were right to assume so. Too often people get wrapped up in grouping everything into one basket when events like #GamerGate are not so black and white. The nuances are lost to individuals that rush to unilaterally denounce an entire group of people and anything they’ve ever said or supported, and unfortunately, both “sides” are guilty of this practice.
You may think that I’ve been rather light on the audience in my judgement. Perhaps I have, but at the risk of dismissing it all as “it’s the Internet,” you’re talking about an audience that could be comprised of an 11 year old who just learned he can type nasty things when mom and dad aren’t looking and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop him. You’re talking about an enthusiast demographic that spends an exorbitant amount of money on an industry that now dwarfs cinema and professional sports as the highest grossing form of entertainment on the planet. Does that excuse them of horrific behavior? No. What I will say is that a journalist should know better and does not, or at least should not, have the excuse of ignorance or youth to excuse themselves from basic ethical practices. This very publication has had its own hiccups and growing pains, but the difference is rather than dismiss them or pretend they didn’t happen, we’ve always made an effort to correct it and apologize for it.
Having touched upon the failures and possible motivations of the belligerents of #GamerGate, we can now proceed to the closing act in our trilogy. Like in A Christmas Carol we’ve come to the final stop in our journey, the third act in which Scrooge learns of all the terrible ramifications for his life spent in self-service. It is here where we can muse on the apparent and possible repercussions of an industry-wide meltdown that could have largely been avoided, as well as possible solutions. Join me next time in Sympathy for the Devil: Understanding Relationships, Criticism, and Ethics in a Post-GamerGate World Pt 3.