TR Member Perks!

A lot of ink has been figuratively spent on #GamerGate, the bulk of it largely attempting to describe with some degree of finality what it is or isn’t. Usually this comes with some ham-fisted attempt to cram the controversy into the narrow worldview of the interpreter to paint the picture they want to see. I’ve no interest in boring you with my own version; rather, as an amateur sociologist, I’m much more interested in causation, relationships between groups, and lessons that can be learned from important cultural events; and make no mistake, #GamerGate is an important cultural event.

Recent happenings and interactions on Twitter have provoked me to think long and hard about the torrid on-again-off-again relationship between the traditional game’s media and their audience, mostly in the hope of finding some slice of common ground or a morsel of understanding that would humanize a coterie of industry professionals that seem all too eager to become an absurd caricature of Charles Foster Kane. After more than a year of being a small-time, two-bit, “games journalist” myself, I’ve formed an idea or two about the duties of journalists, critics, and audience that I would like to share with you in the hopes that we can move a fraction of an inch closer to a cessation of hostilities.

Like all great conflicts, the burden of blame falls on multiple parties. It’s easy to point at the contemptuous media and say “Look at how damn smug these people are—surely they’re to blame!” but I firmly believe that we are all guilty of certain sins, both big and small, that necessitated the cultural phenomena known as #GamerGate. In this three-part series I hope to explore the roles of the players in this great human drama, examine how they failed at their duties, ponder the motivations that lead to these failures as well as their consequences, and discuss possible solutions to a controversy that has come to encompass a myriad of sensitive hot-topics, such as online harassment, sexism, cultural Marxism, and journalistic integrity.

Before you begin knotting the noose, dear audience, it’s important that I establish context by sharing with you my beliefs on the duties of journalists, critics, and audience.

Death of the critic.

And so, feeling the cold pall of death take root in his heart, the corrupt journalist looked back on a happier time before slipping loose of the mortal coil. “Shitlords,” he murmured, the snow globe tumbling from his hand as the body of his work was heaped unceremoniously upon the fire.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, we have to discuss the distinction between a journalist and a critic. While criticism may often fall under the purview of a journalist, the tenets of journalism do not so easily fall into the lap of a critic. In a perfect world, a journalist will objectively describe an event using primary sources and neutral language to present a reader with all the information they need to make a decision. Ideally they will remove themselves as much as possible from their work so that their readers may step in and come to a conclusion based on the facts presented, rather than spoon-fed what to think or how they should feel.

Contrary to this notion of objectivity stands the critic. Critics invariably come with certain tastes, agendas, or biases that will color their perception and bleed into their observations for good or ill. They have no use for neutrality because what they are offering you is their opinion, which comes with all the burden of their life experience, worldview, and education. Their job is best performed when they can marry their convictions with supportive evidence. It’s also worth noting that they often have a more sharply defined audience in mind than the journalist when they opine.

Where this becomes prickly is the Wild West nature of the Internet. In special interest publications you often find individuals that fill both of these roles simultaneously, and it can be difficult to distinguish whether they’re a journalist, a critic, or a blogger. Worse yet, authors further obfuscate this distinction by shedding these identities as a defense mechanism, shifting between these roles fluidly to suit the situation. As we will see later, however, it’s all a matter of semantics and ultimately inconsequential what someone refers to themselves as when held to scrutiny.

For the purpose of this article we will describe journalists and critics as though they are separate entities, keeping in mind that this is rarely the case in contemporary publications. Finally, this is not a consummate list of duties but rather three or four responsibilities I believe to be the most essential for each role.

Let us first begin with the role of the journalist. As we’ve already stated, their primary duty is to inform. In games journalism in particular they are often the intermediary between the industry and the fans. They sort through the press releases, trailers, and rumors and try to give their readership a picture of what’s going on without inundating them with useless information. A journalist has succeeded if they’ve managed to evenly consider all aspects and report on them without bias so that their audience can make an informed decision, whether it be what to buy, what to eat, who to vote for, or what stocks to invest in.

Another role of the journalist is to provide a voice to the voiceless. As you may imagine, this is a higher calling than simply relaying information and may be the reason why someone becomes a journalist to begin with. This role has greatly expanded since the indie revolution, given that indie developers without a PR firm or marketing budget rely largely on word of mouth and press to advertise their games. A journalist may be the difference between a hidden-gem reaching the hands of a consumer or staying forever buried in the labyrinthine bowels of Steam Greenlight.

The third role of a journalist is gatekeeping. It is their job and that of their editors to consider what is newsworthy. They must look at an event and decide whether it’s in the public’s interest to investigate or pursue a story based on the needs of their readership. If they decide a story is worth publishing, it is their duty to properly vet sources and perform routine fact-checking to ensure that they deliver the most accurate report they can. This is a role that has diminished greatly due to the influence of the Internet. With a dizzying array of blogs, publications, aggregate sites, and news feeds, it has become somewhat of a case of journalists guarding a gate while the walls are left to crumble.

I’m sitting at a safe distance, drinking wine, waiting on my entree and holding an internal monologue on the utility of turtle-neck sweaters in a post-industrial, service-based, society. I’m having an OK time. ©Disney 2007

The critic is another beast entirely. I’ve come to decide that the work of a critic should be regarded with the same candor as Texans have for government: it’s a necessary job, but you’d rather your son didn’t do it. It’s extremely easy for someone to pick apart the creative work of another from the relative safety of their office chair making poignant, sarcastic remarks that are written as much for the writer as they are the reader. The dull tedium of judging another’s livelihood can only be broken up with self-indulgent references and biting, evocative rhetoric that seeks to entertain as much as inform. Yet, that’s not to say that criticism doesn’t have its purpose.

It is a critic’s job to be an effective barometer in terms of identifying when certain aspects of artistry have been beaten to death or exsanguinated for every bit of intellectual sustenance they have to offer. Eventually someone has to say out loud “I’m getting really sick of zombie games.” It’s a little self-righteous and comes loaded with the arrogance that since you’re finally tired of it, everyone else should be too. Still, it functions as a prod for developers to hopefully move on and find more fertile ground in the same way a passive-aggressive roommate may wonder aloud why there are still dishes in the sink. The efficacy of this call-to-action is directly related to the amount of money a company can still rake in, which is in turn a reflection of the consumer’s willingness to tolerate yet another sequel. As such, this is perhaps the most tertiary duty that a critic can perform and can quickly turn an enthusiastic, bushy-tailed critic into a miserable, dead-eyed belligerent from the overwhelming feeling that they’re screaming at a wall.

The second duty that a critic has is to deliver their opinion within the framework of their experience. As we mentioned before, the critic may have an agenda, a bias, a particular audience, or an angle they’re known for. They may focus on novel gameplay, themes, social commentary, tropes, accessibility, how they felt while playing a game, or even whether it was fun or not. What separates a good critic from a bad one is their ability to convey these thoughts and feelings in a way that may promote discussion. A good critic will make you think about what they’re saying, even if you’re deeply offended by their position.

A perfect example would be if someone were to assert that Bayonetta 2 objectifies women or is sexually exploitative because of the provocative nature of Bayonetta’s attire or mannerisms. Someone may argue that she’s fiercely independent and in complete control of her body and identity, and is therefore an example of a strong woman who also happens to own her sexuality. The critic has successfully encouraged dialogue, which allows an errant reader to form his or her own opinion on the subject or possibly even go off and read more about the the subject. The industry, the critic, and the reader are all for the better thanks to an unabated flow of discourse.

Criticism appears easy because anyone can point at something and say it sucks. A true critic should be a master of their trade well-versed in dominating theories, genres, tropes, and industry-specific knowledge to provide the best possible critique. Not only does it help you put across your arguments more effectively, but makes you more credible and genuine. It’s absolutely critical to build a knowledge base that makes you an authority on the subject because enthusiasts will be able to sniff out someone who has no idea what they’re talking about with ease. It’s important that should a critic ever be caught with their pants down that they confess to their ignorance on the topic and make an effort to educate themselves, as the loss of face will be minimal in comparison to the monumental blow back of pretending you know something that you don’t and condescending to people well-versed in the subject.

Paramount to a critic’s work is that they must be able to present their opinion without allowing outside influences to sway their judgement. In other words, they cannot be afraid of their audience or they risk pandering to them and delivering pulled-punches in regards to their assessments. A critic that’s afraid to speak their mind is a damn useless thing. They must challenge their readership, attack their expectations and established conventions, and turn them on their heads in order to stimulate a dialogue. This comes with the expectation that their audience is mature enough to be confronted with controversial topics or beliefs that are outside their own without devolving into an angry mob.

This is, however, a two-way street; a critic can fully expect to have their observations challenged and should be prepared to defend themselves with supporting evidence. It is certain they’ll catch some vitriol as well, and it’s essential that they’re thick-skinned enough to endure a few cheap shots without spiraling into a full-blown Twitter meltdown.

Now dear reader we come to you. What are your duties as a reader? Should a writer even have expectations for an audience? Plainly, not really, but I think I speak for everyone when I say that if readers kept a few things in mind, it would help lubricate the whole process of exchanging ideas.

A reader should be prepared to have their ideas and preconceived notions challenged, even if they were not expecting to have them challenged. It goes without saying that eventually you’re going to come across something that offends you, and how you react speaks greatly to your character. It’s to the benefit of humanity that we be able to read something counter to our own opinion without acting like a juvenile. How many times a day are you confronted with something that you disagree with? Of those instances, how many resulted in you throwing a hissy fit? Simply because it’s a virtual space doesn’t mean you should regress into a primordial state of hooting wildly, banging your chest, and flinging feces at the wall in some exaggerated display to intimidate competition.

It’s also up to the reader to find sources of criticism that suit their tastes. This doesn’t mean you should seek out someone that makes you feel the most affirmed in your position, but someone who can present a controversial opinion in a way that you find palatable. For example, I disagree with a certain Breitbart author on a number of political issues, but am enchanted by his writing style and his ability to convey thoughts and ideas such that I’m not nearly as insulted as I probably could be

Consider for a moment if you did the opposite. What if you sought out a source that perpetually offends you? If you constantly visited their site and read their position and turned into a frothing, rabid, reactionary with every word—what does that say about you? Do the words “perpetually offended” remind you of anyone? Is that someone that you want to be?

Perhaps the final and most important duty of the reader, or in this case the consumer, is to hold authors accountable for the things they write and especially ethical misconduct. You keep us honest. You have a duty to yourself and others to bring it to the attention of a publication when they’ve failed to disclose, properly cite sources, or otherwise screw the pooch in terms of adhering to guidelines that, let’s face it, most of us learned in our introductory year of college. Sometimes it may be something honest and sometimes it may be something well beyond the curative properties of a “my bad.” We all make mistakes, but individuals who continue to fail at meeting baseline standards and actively engage in intentional dishonesty need to be excised with the detachment of a surgeon removing a cancer. Be the scalpel, if you must, but make sure you come packing evidence.

Now that I’ve explained to you my thoughts on the responsibilities of journalists, critics, and readership, we can talk about where it all went wrong. At what point did the state of the industry call for journalists to enact a scorched-earth policy and fighting-retreat into an indefensible position where lobbing disparaging labels became their only recourse? How did it devolve into this chaotic mess of accusations and attempts to get people fired?

Join me next time where we will attempt to topically address how each of these three roles failed in their prescribed duties, as well as examine possible motivators and casus belli for the war on gamers in Sympathy for the Devil: Understanding Relationships, Criticism, and Ethics in a Post-GamerGate World Pt. 2.

This is the first of a three-part series. Do you feel my assessment of these three interdependent groups was accurate? Do you think I missed an important responsibility? Let me know in the comments below.

Stuart Burns

Stuart Burns is aging horribly along with his world view. When not keeping his son away from choking hazards he sometimes plays video games and writes about them.