Disclaimer: This blog post assumes you have some knowledge of the events surrounding GamerGate. If you don’t, it’s hard to get a picture of what’s going on, because there’s very little factual information out there from reputable sources. There’s some information at this Know Your Meme page, and my Zoegate spreadsheet may help as well.
-deep breath- Okay, here goes nothing.
As a member of the gaming community, this past week has been difficult for me. I’ve witnessed some incredibly despicable and disheartening things. I’ve seen vicious misogyny and harassment. Contemptuous dismissals of social justice from people supposedly concerned about ethics. A respected film and geek culture critic engaging in vile bullying. An unwillingness on the part of people who claim to care about social justice to speak out about abuse. A gaming press that seems more concerned about self-preservation than catering to its audience. It’s enough to make anyone want to leave the community for good.
But I’ve also witnessed some heartening things. People crossing ideological lines to demand better journalistic ethics. Gamers from all corners of the community coming together to condemn bullying and harassment. Gamers recognizing that their hobby is more important than all this in-fighting.
And I’ve also witnessed some very bizarre things. 4chan’s /v/ board creating a mascot to support women in gaming, whose sweater’s colour scheme is a reference to a Dragonball Z anal rape .gif. A ridiculous rumour about a sinister conspiracy of social justice warriors staging a fake mob attack at PAX Prime. Adam Baldwin getting involved in this whole mess for some reason.
What to make of all of this? I’ll offer some very disjointed thoughts after the jump.
THE SWIMMING POOL
I like to think of the gaming community as a large, public, outdoor swimming pool. It’s the kind of place where you could see people of all shapes, sizes, genders, and ethnicities frolicking in the water and generally having a good time. Lifeguards around the pool tried to keep everything in order and make sure that everyone was safe and accepted.
Of course, this being a public pool, there were idiots and bullies who made the pool harder to enjoy for some swimmers. They excluded kids from games of Marco Polo or splashed water in their faces.
These excluded and marginalized swimmers didn’t appreciate the treatment they were getting, so they went to the lifeguards and asked them to better enforce the pool’s rules.
At first, this arrangement worked out fine. The bullies didn’t appreciate the lifeguards and bullied swimmers trampling on their fun, but everyone else seemed okay with it. However, things then started to change – slowly, at first. People started noticing that lifeguards were letting the formerly bullied swimmers get away with breaking some rules – a little bit of splashing here, a little bit of horseplay there. But no matter – this was just evening the playing field.
But then the formerly bullied swimmers and the lifeguards started hanging out at the pool after hours, and other swimmers started suspecting that the lifeguards were purposely letting their friends break the rules. Nonetheless, the lifeguards kept insisting that it was a simple friendship, nothing more.
Then one of the lifeguards’ friends peed in the pool.
WHY THIS IS SUCH A BIG DEAL
Usually, when someone pees in a pool, everyone’s got to get out. And when people aren’t swimming, that gives them a chance to start lobbing accusations at each other – accusations that have very little to do with the small amount of urine that the chlorine will neutralize anyway.
That’s exactly what happened here. A small catalyzing event caused an eruption that laid bare long-simmering tensions in the gaming community, and the lifeguards of the gaming press seem to be doing little to cool them. Whatever is happening right now is barely even about Eron Gjoni’s initial revelations of Zoë Quinn’s infidelity. This has become part of a larger conversation about the obdurate persistence of bigotry within the gaming community, as well as the standards of conduct to which members of the gaming press hold themselves.
If those two issues don’t sound as if they’re at cross-purposes, that’s because they’re not. GamerGate need not be an us-versus-them issue, no matter how much the people involved want to frame it that way.
In fact, it’s this framing that fuels the controversy. There can be no conflict if there are no opponents, and so the people who are invested in seeing this continue – whether because they have a stake in the matter or because they just like fighting – construct an imaginary other. Gamers conjure up images of angry, corrupt “social justice warriors” who believe not a whit of what they’ve written and pretend to care about feminism just so that they can advance their careers. And journalists paint gamers as ugly, neckbearded, unloved and unlovable misogynist virgins. A faceless enemy isn’t perceived as a threat. But these images appeal to us, and the more moderate latch on to them as a reason to pick a side. Hence, polarization obtains.
On its face, the idea that people should be treated equally, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, or creed is uncontroversial. To get to a place where we can treat everyone equally, we must address the systemic issues faced by marginalized groups. This is the core tenet of social justice.
Then how did “social justice” become a derogatory term in the eyes of a large subset of gamers? Why do they condemn “SJ clickbait”? If it truly distressed them, they could simply not click on those articles. But still they click, and still they comment, angry about how “feminism” has ruined gaming. Some of them are undoubtedly angry heterosexual cis-men who have rarely had to confront their own privilege. But others – many others – simply want to STFUAJPG – shut the fuck up and just play games. They may even belong to marginalized groups themselves; games act as an escape from the harsh realities of the real world for them. In this way, a discussion of social issues lessens their enjoyment of the medium.
Thus, these people come to resent “social justice.” It has invaded their hobby and turned what used to be an escape into an inescapable fortress of prudish restriction and political correctness. The problem is that social justice is important – incredibly important – and the people who want to discuss it in the context of gaming have a need to speak up about it. How do we resolve this dilemma?
This is tricky, because thus far, “if you don’t want to read it, don’t click on it” hasn’t been fully effective. I often find that when asked if they support equality and helping people in need, people tend to say yes, but when asked if they support “social justice,” they say no. (It sounds like an “Affordable Care Act” vs. “ObamaCare” situation here, doesn’t it?) But if the reluctance to accept social justice were a simple branding issue, you’d think that people would have caught on by now. I think part of the problem is that too often, activists try to engage with people who just don’t care, who want to be left alone. Yes, they might be apathetic because they’re blinded by their privilege, but goading people to fight can cause them to turn against you, deepening the polarization I discussed earlier.
As for how all of this ties back to GamerGate, I see a lot of people who are demanding better ethical conduct from games journalists while also demanding an end to “SJ clickbait.” As I outlined earlier, the two aren’t related, and I think it would behoove those people to focus on the former and not the latter. Journalistic ethics are important. So is social justice. It’s possible to write pieces about social justice while still being ethical. It’s true that some people who write about social justice breached ethical standards here, but – and I must emphasize this – it’s not because they wrote about social justice; it’s because they’re guilty of professional misconduct. The angry gamers demanding better journalistic standards would do well to remember that.
So, to summarize, gamers should stop focusing on “social justice” as a problem, because the main reason it got dragged into this mess was because the people who are perceived to have breached ethical standards believe in it. It is – as I’ll explain later – part of the solution. If gamers aren’t interested in it, they just shouldn’t engage with it. That may seem like a defeatist attitude to activists who care deeply about social justice, but activists would do well to remember that having the ability to struggle is a privilege. Some people face enough oppression in their daily lives that facing the idea of that oppression in their leisure time is not an enticing proposition.
HARASSMENT AND BULLYING
Obviously, harassment and bullying are bad. I’m not going to waste time explaining why they’re bad, because I respect your intelligence. But I do believe that some people have difficulty recognizing when they’re behaving badly. I think that some gamers don’t recognize that name-calling can be harmful, and for example, calling Zoë Quinn a “slut” is unhelpful. However, I’ve also seen journalists and activists – people who have usually held the moral high ground – engaging in some particularly nasty bullying in the past few days. Take Badass Digest critic Devin Faraci, for example, who has compared gamers to ISIS, fat-shamed a YouTube personality who hasn’t harassed anyone involved in this situation, and called for the doxxing of people who have wished to remain anonymous. This is unacceptable conduct for any public or semi-public figure. I think these people don’t understand that they’re not necessarily downtrodden people fighting oppressors; their public platform gives them power, and because of that power, their bullying carries more weight than it does coming from some random Twitter user. Bullying and harassment – even in the name of social justice – are not okay. Period.
For too long, there has been an unacceptable amount of toxic rhetoric in social justice circles – abuse delivered under the guise of social progress. Katherine Cross wrote a stellar piece at the start of this year that deconstructed this sort of behaviour. Bullying used to occur mainly within activist circles, to call out others who were “doing it wrong,” so to speak. Some activists used call-outs as a means of garnering “social justice points” to advance their statuses as activists rather than the ideals of social justice to which they supposedly aspired. As long as this behaviour remained within activist circles, its effects were isolated, invisible to the majority. But now the target – the “gamer,” a stereotypical white, heterosexual cis-man – is external, and the ugly side of activism is laid bare for all to see. The gamers aren’t bullied because they’re gamers; they’re bullied because bullying has become normalized, and as long as the target – the white, heterosexual cis-man – remains the paragon of privilege, then the bullies believe their bullying to be justified. Thus, the voices of women and people of colour who disagree with the activist bullies are erased – keep in mind that silencing is a form of bullying – and these marginalized people are let down by the very activists who purport to be their allies. This activist bullying is so pernicious because it not only harms its target, it also causes collateral damage.
ABUSE AND DEFAMATION
As much as I’d like to avoid the topic of Gjoni’s original allegations against Quinn, they have coloured the entire debate so far. Gjoni’s allegations paint a portrait of an emotional manipulator who put her partner through some terrifying psychological abuse.
Now, I should make one thing clear: I know very little about emotional and psychological abuse, and the harms it can cause relative to physical abuse. That being said, I’ve always been told that allegations of abuse should be taken seriously; the accuser always has a right to be presumed a survivor, until proven otherwise.
This unfortunately requires a bit of cognitive dissonance, since the presumption of the accused’s innocence is just as important. Quinn shouldn’t be raked over the coals until the allegations are confirmed, and those who have been referring to her as an “abuser” and calling for her head would do well to remember that.
That being said, I’ve seen nearly as much vilifcation of Gjoni. In multiple pieces, he’s been referred to as a “jilted” or “angry” ex-boyfriend. (“Jilted” doesn’t mean what you think it means, journalists.) One Critical Distance thinkpiece roundup even referred to Gjoni as an “abuser.” (Scroll down to the part where they explain why they declined to include his Vice interview. Sidenote: it’s not a great interview, and it focuses way too much on Vivian James, which Gjoni had little to do with.) Over and over again, the very idea of his victimhood is denied.
Can this truly be considered “social justice”? No, it cannot and should not. Those who vilify Gjoni while criticizing the institutions that discredit and denigrate survivors of abuse are being unbelievably hypocritical. This is shameful behaviour, and it needs to stop.
ETHICS AND INDIES
Now we come to what I think is the real meat of the issue: that of ethics and games journalism. To talk about that, though, we have to jump back in time a bit, to October 2012. That was when the infamous “Doritogate” scandal occurred. Quick recap: one games journalist insinuated that another appeared to have a conflict of interest; the accused threatened to sue for libel; a shitstorm ensued. I wrote about that issue at the time, and I came to two conclusions:
- Games media sites should have a code of ethics to which all of its writers and contributors must adhere.
- Games journalists should disclose all relevant conflicts of interest.
Games journalism has made a small amount of progress on both fronts. Eurogamer and Polygon are among the few sites that have fairly comprehensive ethics statements that are easily accessible to their visitors. Moreover, games journalists have gotten slightly better at disclosing the context of a review – i.e. whether it was done at a review event, with copies sent by the publisher, on the site’s own dime, etc.
Unfortunately, these prescriptions are still not widely followed, and in the wake of GamerGate, I’ve come to believe that they’re not enough.
Ideally, conflicts of interest shouldn’t happen. Sometimes, they’re inevitable, and they should be disclosed in those cases. But generally, journalists should do everything they can to avoid conflicts of interest in the first place. That’s why it’s so odd to see games journalists adopt such cavalier attitudes towards suggestions that friendships with indie developers constitute avoidable conflicts of interest. “Friendships happen,” they say. Um, what? Friendships don’t just “happen.” They have to be cultivated and maintained. Besides, these sorts of relationships are not the norm in the other areas of the entertainment press. Maureen Ryan and Dick Wolf don’t regularly go out for dinner together, and I doubt Peter Travers has ever spent a weekend at Ron Howard’s ski lodge.
At this point, I’ll probably be fed some bullshit about how that’s just the way the industry works, and I can’t understand, because I’m not a games journalist. To that I say, if perceived conflicts of interest are that unavoidable, if it’s that impossible for people involved in the games industry to keep their personal and professional lives separate, then the games industry is completely broken, and instead of throwing up your hands like a goofy ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ emoticon, maybe you should try actually fixing the fucking industry.
You see, this never should have been about who slept with whom. Sex is only really a currency if the people involved want it to be a currency. So instead of asking why Quinn would cheat on Gjoni and sleep with Nathan Grayson, we really should be asking under what circumstances it is acceptable for a games journalist to be staying at a prominent indie game developer’s house in the first place. Why do people form these friendships, and why do game journalists think they’re okay?
Other conflicts of interests are similarly met with blithe dismissal. Games journalists don’t seem to understand why supporting Patreons, Kickstarters, and Indiegogo campaigns could be considered worthy of disclosure, while the act of merely purchasing a video game is not. It beggars belief that journalists could be this obtuse. Going to a store and buying a video game does not affect the existence of that video game. It may have second-order effects on the existence of future video games, as developers use the revenue from sales to fund future titles, but it does not have a direct impact on the existence of something that already exists. On the other hand, the purpose of crowdfunding and patronage services is to bring products into existence. In that case, funders’ actions can have a very direct impact on the existence of certain products, and if there are rewards for funding, then backers can have a material investment in the success of the project. This is undeniably a conflict of interest.
But how can we even hope to tackle smaller conflicts of interest like crowdfunding when larger ones continue unabated? One prominent games critic and writer, Leigh Alexander, operates a consultancy service for games called Agency. Disclosure of this company’s existence is not at all featured on her writings for Gamasutra. How is this considered acceptable?
Why are these conflicts of interest bad? Because they create an unfair playing field where some indie developers are advantaged over others. The indie developers who have access to press via friendship are those whose Kickstarters and other endeavours are promoted in the press. If members of the press are consulting on these games, then if their payment is also tied to the games’ success, the incentives to drum up positive feelings for those games in the press are too high to ignore. This is even more insidious than friendships between games journalists and PR for AAA publishers; at least PR provides some sort of barrier between journalists and devs. But in the indie scene, there is often a direct pipeline of information between developer and press; it’s far too easy for that pipeline to become compromised.
Nepotism isn’t just an issue of fairness, though; it’s also a social justice issue. The indie community is composed mainly of well-educated white people. (Lest you think that a fancy university degree is needed to make technical things like video games, check this out.) They make friends with other well-educated white people – not necessarily out of malice or racism, but because of a complex variety of factors that would take too long to unpack here. (In any case, you can’t really check off things like “gay friend,” “black friend,” or “friend in a wheelchair” like items on a shopping list.) When journalists befriend this club of indie developers, they give press to these devs at the expense of developers from marginalized groups. This perpetuates a cycle where developers who aren’t in the club, like developers of colour, cannot easily make their voices heard.
SILENCE FROM JOURNALISTS
One group that has remained curiously silent about this imbroglio is journalists themselves. Obviously, not all of them are corrupt, and not all of them have potentially compromising friendships with indie developers. So why haven’t they spoken up?
I don’t think it’s because they’re just protecting their friends. There are probably journalists working quietly behind the scenes, conducting interviews and combing through Twitter feeds. These things take a lot of time, and I would counsel angry gamers who are demanding a response from the press to have some patience. Even making the fact of an investigation public could compromise it (e.g. by scaring off potential sources), so some degree of silence is understandable.
Clearly, GamerGate is a mess of intertwining issues in the games media, and there are no simple solutions that will restore the faith that readers have in journalists or the respect that journalists have for their readers. Nonetheless, I have some recommendations for what the involved parties should do.
To Zoë Quinn, Eron Gjoni, and Nathan Grayson: I advise you all to leave the gaming industry for at least a few months, if not for longer or even permanently, both for your own good and for the good of the gaming community. Your continued presence is merely fuelling tensions. If you need help, then seek it. But persisting in fighting this out is helping no one.
To Leigh Alexander: You can either be a journalist or a consultant. You can’t be both. Pick one.
To Devin Faraci: You’re a bully, plain and simple. Your decision to leave GamerGate alone was a step in the direction, but it would behoove you to leave social media for a couple of weeks, because being enmeshed in it is clearly not helping you gain perspective.
To gamers: You’re angry. I understand why. The people who claimed to hold the moral high ground over you may or may not be corrupt, but they certainly have a poor understanding of what constitutes corruption (or the perception thereof). But that’s not an excuse to bully or harass others, nor is it a reason to crusade against social justice. Social justice is valuable, and the concept of equality and dignity for all is non-negotiable.
So what can you do? I encourage you to keep demanding better journalistic standards from the gaming press. Keep sleuthing and investigating. But don’t just target members of the press because they believe in social justice; scrutinize the ones who look suspicious. Don’t go looking for conspiracies, because the likelihood that there is a concerted scheme hatched by a segment of indies and journalists is astronomically low. But keep calling out undisclosed conflicts of interest, because that will provide the pressure needed to engender meaningful change in the gaming press.
To games journalists: First of all, just stop it with these articles about how much you hate gamers. If you hold your audience in that much contempt, then maybe you should pick a different profession. However, I should point out that there are people who espouse problematic viewpoints everywhere on this planet; you’ll have to deal with them no matter what you do for a living.
Secondly, I know that most of you are perplexed by gamers’ passionate and vocal response to GamerGate, because most of you aren’t corrupt. However, transparency and accountability shouldn’t be viewed as chores. They’re the sine qua non of a trustworthy press.
Thirdly, if you see harassment or bullying, no matter whom it comes from, then call it out (but not in a mean-spirited, combative way). That might mean calling out friends and colleagues, but it will go a long way towards restoring readers’ faith in the gaming press.
Fourthly and most importantly, all gaming outlets need to adopt clearly visible standards of ethical conduct and disclosure. This should have happened after Doritogate. There’s no excuse for it not to happen now.
To everyone: This has been a trying time for the gaming community. I don’t believe in the adage that whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. The gaming press will be weakened by this, perhaps for a long time. But I do think that this situation can be recovered from. What it will take is time – time for wounds to heal, and time for the truth to come out. Only then can we begin to clean the mess that made us all jump out of the pool.
A PERSONAL NOTE
I would like to conclude this piece with something of a personal note. Gaming has been one of my most treasured pastimes for the past few years. It has gotten me through some tough times and continues to be my escape from the troubles of daily life. Very few of my real-life friends are gamers, so I’ve often taken to the Internet to find others who share my passion. Because of this, the gaming community has become an important part of my life.
This community is a diverse group of people from all walks of life. Our diversity is what gives us our differences, but our commonality – our shared love of gaming – is what brings us together. That commonality is a powerful one, because it gives us our shared cultural touchstones. We all stomped on the first Goomba in Super Mario Bros. We all built nauseating roller coasters and tormented guests in RollerCoaster Tycoon. We all cried when Aerith died in Final Fantasy VII. (Okay, I admit, I haven’t played that one yet. I swear it’s on my list!) We all looked on in horror as Frank Fontaine made us beat Andrew Ryan to death in BioShock. We all laughed our asses off at Wheatley’s antics in Portal 2. And we all fumbled way across the finish line in QWOP.
We may all be very different people. But let’s not forget that our shared experiences are what make us a community. Let’s celebrate our diversity, but let’s also celebrate what brought us together in the first place: gaming. In times of crisis, that shared constant is what will keep us together.