Dear Concerned Gamers
A response to some of your complaints.
A couple of days ago, I approached several people using the hashtag GamerGate to learn more about their grievances with games journalism (you can read the resulting conversations in full here and here). It was an attempt to find the legitimate concerns they claim to present, inspired by Cameron Kunzelman’s earlier attempt at good-faith communication on This Cage Is Worms. I link to this not only because his saintly patience led me to try and channel some myself, but also because I agree with his his overall thoughts on the campaign.
It appears to me like a confusing mishmash of different groups, different agendas and different ideologies. Some people are using it to harass women (and others) in order to drive them away from games, as they have done since this unsavory affair began, except since the inception of the hashtag they get to do so under the pretext of being concerned with ethical behavior (even though nothing about their actions has ever been ethical). Other people, who I’d like to think constitute the majority of the movement, seem to be genuinely interested in discussing practices in games journalism (even if they may be a little too eager to sweep the actions of the first group under the rug in the process).
This text is for the second group. After listening to your concerns, I would like to address them, and to provide you with a few insights into what it is like living on the other side of this divide. By necessity, what I’ve written generalizes quite a bit. For the purposes of this article, you are a gamer(TM) and I am a journalist(TM). You might not match my description of what a gamer does and says exactly, but please don’t take it the wrong way. I am not a model journalist either. Other people who write about games may not share my views or my experience.
I have, at the time of writing, made zero dollars from games journalism. I have, admittedly, written a few things for which I will be paid eventually, but this is not one of them. Since this site does not run ads, I will not make a single cent on this article, no matter how often you click on it. For further disclosure: You can find our own ethics policy here. If you have any questions or want to talk about something I have not covered – like how nepotism does exist in the industry, but Patreon has nothing to do with it – don’t hesitate to leave a comment. Just keep in mind that we go through all comments manually, so it may take a while for me to approve yours. This is also a rather long read, so if you don’t have time for all sections I recommend skipping ahead to However.
I’d like to thank Twitter users @XcaaaaL, @jarod_frye, @_willhesucceed, @BionicFireman, @MeinosKaen and @EegahTaki for indulging my curiosity. You may not necessarily like how I am going to respond to your concerns, but I ask that you do me the same courtesy I did you and hear me out without rejecting my response outright. With that in mind, let’s go over some of the complaints you have.
Stop the hate
This was a common thread in many conversations I had, common enough to become a heavily supported petition.
I understand that you’re upset about the way some sites are covering gamer culture and I agree that it has been painted in an overly homogenous way, but you, in turn, need to understand that you cannot compare this to the direct attacks, insults and slurs journalists and developers face. Articles suggesting that I’m a lazy slob because I’m attending university rather than getting a job are not nice to read, but they are nowhere near as devastating as having somebody say these things to my face. In fact, since I know that I am not a lazy slob, the potshot indictment has no power at all to hurt me. It’s far easier to distance yourself from something that has been said about a group you are part of than it is to ignore somebody choosing to target you directly.
I cannot justify the insults that may have been thrown at you in direct conversation, even by me, but do try to understand what this is like on the other side. When you choose to talk to one of us on Twitter, you are probably not the first, or even the tenth person to do so. The people caught in the center of attention may have been approached by hundreds or even thousands of people before you come along, and any human being can only muster so much patience.
Understand, as well, that this is not the first time any of us have danced this dance. We are used to having these conversations, and we are very, very tired. Because, at best, these conversations go like this. At best we spend precious minutes and hours of our life wading through the initial insults and arguments we’ve heard a thousand times to get through to somebody, and actually do. Very often we find that all we’ve earned ourselves in the process is more insults.
If you’re unsure whether or not to approach somebody on Twitter, a good way to put yourself in their shoes is to search for their username to see not only what they are saying, but also what they are hearing. The most recent tweets will not show you the baggage they’ve been carrying around for days and weeks, but it may give you an idea of the kind of mean things they hear regularly.
You may also see a lot of colleagues speaking out in support of them, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it cancels out the abuse they get. If you put one foot in ice cold water and one foot in hot water, you don’t feel lukewarm overall. You experience both of those extremes, at the same time.
Devs and journos, sitting in a tree
As much as you’d like to divorce this campaign from the misogynistic abuse that started it, your complaints frequently circled back to the allegations made in the course of these attacks. Even if they had not, it’s impossible to separate your movement from those committing crimes under its name, especially since it has become increasingly apparent that they have been egging you on in order to be covered by the legitimacy you brought to the movement.
Now let’s be very clear here: There is nothing at all to the supposed scandal that started this. No matter how thoroughly you combed through the lengthy tale of intrigue and backstabbing penned by one particularly malicious ex-partner, no substantial evidence of conflicts of interest materialized at any point. The proof that this vile document presents for its conspiracy is coverage that doesn’t exist. It isn’t unethical for game sites not to report on this.
Reporting on it would actually have been the unethical course of action here. Spreading these accusations would have been a clear violation of the journalistic guideline to minimize harm done by our reporting: there is no evidence here that would justify the damage done to the career and life of the developer slandered by her ex-partner. In reporting on it, game sites would have made themselves complicit in a massive breach of her privacy, seeing how it would have required linking to a document comprised in large part of private conversations published without her consent. If anything, game sites universally deciding to put the safety of the developer above the morbid curiosity of their readers is proof that they have their ethical standards straight. Unless you think that trashy gossip magazines are the pinnacle of journalistic integrity.
On a side note, you may be surprised that I refuse to name names, even though we all know who I am talking about. It’s because it’s unfair that the fights around such smear campaigns are fought in the front yards of their victims. Perhaps the ship on protecting anybody’s identity here has long sailed, as indeed the damage to lives and careers has been done regardless of game sites’ best intentions, but I do not wish to add to it. There may still be people who read this a year from now and do not know who I am talking about.
For the sake of completeness, let’s also consider the hypothetical scenario that the fantasy version of events spun by this blog post were what actually happened: A developer bribed journalists with sex. It is, in this case, still utterly beyond me why this is the first time in the history of accusations of bribed reviews that people are pinning it on the developer. In all those forum posts suggesting that a big bag of money from EA or Ubisoft may have influenced scores, nobody ever seems to get upset at them for having the audacity to try such a thing. They are only upset that a journalist would accept a bribe. Suddenly it’s a woman making games, and the blame is placed squarely on the briber, not the bribee? Does not compute. The sexism in your narrative is showing.
Even disregarding all these problems, it’s highly questionable that of all the different ties between people who make games and people who write about games, it’s friendship and romance that have been identified as dangerous to objective reporting. Nobody seems to care if journalists interviewing Tim Schafer, Ken Levine or Cliff Bleszinski show that they are in awe of these people, rather than maintaining critical distance. Why is it perfectly acceptable to approach big games and big names on a level of hero worship and reverence, but approaching small games made my individual people on a personal level is a danger to integrity? If anything, a direct line between writers and developers would be a step up for the amount of honest reporting going on, because it means cutting out PR departments.
Social Justice Warriors are ruining games
@BionicFireman identified this concern, which he described as “a perception ‘Social Justice Warriors’ are bullying game developers into changing games unfairly” (seemingly aware that this is rather absurd), but it also appears to be what these images are about, which show various instances of changes made to games after players complained about sexist or racist imagery.
What’s mainly interesting to me about this is how different the narrative around such changes sounds depending on whether or not you agree with them. People politely asking developers to make slight changes to their game so that they can play it without feeling alienated is tampering with the artistic vision of developers, but when gamers screamed and shouted at Bioware for weeks what a crime against humanity the ending of Mass Effect 3 was, and they eventually tweaked it, it was an example of developers listening to feedback and responding to the concerns of their fans.
It’s a fascinating bit of doublethink, really. Players asking to be treated respectfully is bullying developers, but actual bullying of developers is about wanting to be treated respectfully. Changes you don’t like are damaging games, while changes you want are fixing them. Remember when Treyarch changed some weapons in Black Ops II ever so slightly and people lost their shit? Who was defending their artistic vision? Or the original vision EA had for the new Sim City? That Microsoft had for the Xbox One?
This has never been, on any level, about wanting to protect the artistic freedom of developers. It’s about people you don’t agree with trying to be heard, and them having an impact on a medium over which you’d like to claim full authority.
Not All Gamers
This is another concern that came up frequently and also appears, in those exact words, in an article on What Culture that was described to me as “everything you need to know about #GamerGate.” It’s true, not all gamers are guilty of the behaviors we call out. However, you are still exaggerating the size and nature of the group we are supposedly insulting with these critical articles.
Many gamers, I’ve been told, think that the word refers to everybody who plays videogames. However, I would venture that this is not the case, and has not been the case for a while. Most people who play videogames don’t identify with the label, and probably don’t even know it exists, outside of shock reports on cable news. Other people have distanced themselves from it because of the way it has been co-opted for harassment over and over again. Others still even have that label denied from them: No matter how many games the people you call Social Justice Warriors play, they are always placed opposite gamers in this discussion, not presented as a subgroup.
Who’s left under the banner of gamers if you cross out regular gameplaying folk, people who disassociated themselves from the term, and those with an interest in social justice? Let me tell you: It doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Based on the last couple of weeks, it seems to me that there are only two groups of people left who voluntarily wear that badge:
1) Hateful misogynistic trolls who’ll take any excuse to harass those that they feel have wronged them.
2) People upset to be lumped with the first group, even though the only thing that’s really connecting them to these assholes is their choice to continue to associate with them, follow their lead, and legitimize their hateful cause.
Nobody is saying that all gamers are terrible people or that you all harass developers and journalists (okay, maybe some people are saying that. This is bad of them). However, many people from your group are guilty on both counts, and continuing to rally with them instead of supporting journalists and developers who are under attack doesn’t paint you in a very good light either. The fact that you are more worried about how journalists reporting on harassment coming from your group makes you look, than you are about ostracizing these bad apples or disassociating yourselves from them speaks volumes about your priorities.
If you really, genuinely are concerned about ethics, then the fact that your campaign has been used by these hateful people as a cover for hacking, doxing, death threats and an endless stream of harassment should be a million times more upsetting to you than a journalist maybe having written about their friend at some point. You say it’s not about sexism, but it all links back to it. You can’t divorce your campaign from the crimes that have been committed in its name.
You refuse to accept that joining a common cause with these people connects you to them in any way, yet at the same time insist that journalists having written at the same outlet or engaging in chit-chat is proof of our secret buddy club. You demand that writers respond to threats that have allegedly been made to gamers by people we know nothing about, but refuse to take the blame for threats coming from your own group. You demand full accountability from us, and reject any accountability yourself.
(Note: The efforts to clean up the campaign have increased since I initially wrote these paragraphs, in no small part because the evidence of manipulation, sock puppet accounts and conspiratorial meetings sharing war stratagems against women in gaming has become overwhelming)
Everybody is in cahoots with everybody else
If there is any upside to this affair at all, it’s that games writers everywhere had occasion to use the word cahoots regularly.
This complaint was brought up in conversation by @MeinosKaen, who mentioned “the incestuous relationship between devs and journos,” but also by way of various charts lining out connections within the games industry. If you define as a connection anything as tenuous as people having written for the same publication.
The fact that many people writing about games have had their work appear at the same places one time or another isn’t revealing any sort of secret club, it’s the logical result of the fact that there are not a lot of people writing about games (that people making charts are aware of), but each individual writer tends to be prolific. Most games writers are freelancers, who work by pitching to any place willing to pay them for words, because those are precious few as it is. Some games journalists are steadily employed at one site, but sites are prone to shutting down, and they are often forced to find new gigs. Polygon is a big deal right now, but that site is less than two years old. Back then, the Penny Arcade Report looked like a big deal too.
What I’m trying to say is: you get around writing about games. I’m a far cry from doing this professionally, and still signed my name to articles at six different publications already. Veteran writers can easily list 20 publications or more they’ve written for at least once. With this few people, and this much cross-pollination, you’re bound to find a common denominator between most of them. That doesn’t mean we actually know each other personally (though another result of the smallness of this industry is that we do start recognizing each other by our work). There’s plenty of people I’m connected to by way of some About-page, but that I’ve never exchanged a single word with.
As for the ties to developers, it’s sort of our job to get to know these people. You can’t interview somebody without connecting with them on a human level in some way, unless you just want to send them a list of PR-approved questions and get an interview that reads like the FAQ on the official site for the game. Beyond that, there is the fact that a significant part of games reporting happens at conventions. You can’t stuff developers and journalists into the same building for a couple of days and expect none of them to ever talk to each other. There’s only so many bars in walking distance of convention centers. Smalltalk may happen. Friendships may happen. Relationships, up to and including the formation of the beast with two backs may also happen.
I do agree that it is important to disclose your ties to another person if these ties are more intimate than you would expect from a professional contact, but there was never any failure to disclose such information in the first place because, again, the allegations about lovers writing about lovers are all thin air. Failing to find any genuine cases of people being in cahoots, some of you have done the obvious thing and widened your search. Subscribing to a writer’s Patreon is being in cahoots. Speaking out in support of a colleague facing harassment is being in cahoots. Having been in the same room at some point is being in cahoots. When you demand disclosures that even the Guardian’s legal team considers perfectly unnecessary, you’re grasping for straws.
You are right about one thing though: The fact that journalists and developers know each other probably influences what we write, just not in the way you think. It’s not that our coverage is disingenuous because we are all secretly best buddies, just that knowing the human behind the game changes your perspective.
I used to write in the User Review section of a forum not too long ago, and one of the things I remember distinctly about it now is how vicious people (including me) were at times. We really reveled in saying mean things about games we didn’t like. This is shit. The guy who made it is a hack. Fuck this game, fuck the developer, fuck the publisher.
The more you talk to developers, the more you learn about the business and craft of making games and how hard it is to make them, to finance them, to keep track of all the little bits and pieces and all the people involved in projects, the harder it becomes to bring yourself to say something truly nasty about a game. Maybe some of you think that because we don’t talk about games the way you talk about games, we are corrupt on some level, but it’s not that. You just don’t feel so personally insulted by bad games when you learn about how bad games happen, frequently, despite the best intentions of everybody working on them.
It’s a bit how, when you’re a kid, you might throw a big tantrum if you don’t get what you wanted for Christmas, but when you get older, you just smile and try to look like you’re over the moon getting a pair of socks, because you understand how hard it is to pick a good gift, and are able to appreciate the intent regardless.
This isn’t to say that critics will just smile and nod and give bad games favorable reviews. I have never met a single critic who would shy away from pointing out flaws in something they play or passing devastating verdicts on games. It’s just that you start seeing it as an unfortunate necessity to say mean things about games, and you try divorcing it as much as possible from the people who made them. “This is bad” you say, smiling apologetically as if to add “sorry, but it really is.” Meanness loses its appeal fast when you have to look the people who made a bad game in the eye, see them wince, embarrassed that they made a bad game.
When you’re in a forum, you can poop all over a game without having to deal with the consequences. It’s done, you voiced your opinion and move on with your life. If I were to poop all over a game, I’d have to walk by that poop tomorrow. I’d have to look at that poop, and say “Yeah, I made that poop.” Maybe some day I’d meet the developer of the game at an event or a convention and, even though they probably don’t know and don’t care, I’ll be thinking about how I pooped on their game once even though they didn’t make it bad on purpose.
This isn’t a sign of corruption in games journalism, merely evidence of a more professional attitude among – big surprise – professional writers. I’m glad I managed to shed that kind of negative outlook on games, the one where any game you don’t enjoy is a personal insult by a developer out to get you. The unnecessary meanness brought about by such views has never moved games ahead even by an inch. Being brutal like that doesn’t show that you’re honest, merely that you are callous.
Something that may have added to your confusion is that this doesn’t only affect how we write, but what we write about. If you ever wondered why there seem to be comparatively few negative reviews of indie games, part of the reason is that when we find an indie game we don’t enjoy, we often choose not to talk about it at all instead of bringing it to your attention for the sole purpose of tearing it apart.
When a big game turns out to be shit, game sites review it regardless, because the amount of PR, advertising and pre-coverage it probably received means you need to be warned that the final product isn’t what you have been led to believe. The reviews of Aliens: Colonial Marines show that pretty well. But we wouldn’t be doing you a service by picking up a game you never heard of and then warning you not to play it. Better to highlight something that is worthy of your attention.
If this selective coverage has given you the impression that critics like all indie games, let me assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of indie games I hear about I dismiss (perhaps unfairly) sight unseen. “Check out our free-to-play zombie survival crafting MOBA roguelike” their emails say, or some variation of these words. I groan, and mark them as read without opening them. Indie cabal indeed.
Perhaps the saddest thing about this entire campaign, for me, is that while so many of you continued to scream, shout, threaten and cajole on Twitter, you held the power to changing games journalism in your own hands the entire time. Stop consuming the insulting pre-pre-precoverage of triple A games, so that we can stop feeding it to you. Boycott the sites that you feel are not up to your standards. Find other sites that are and promote their work. Make your own sites (that last one might actually happen, and I wish you the best of luck with it).
However, in doing so, you’re going to have to come to terms with the realities of this business. You’re going to have to get it out of your head that we live in golden castles made from publisher bribe money, and realize that most of us are paid a pittance, or fuck all, for the privilege of having strangers take a bite out of us everytime they think we’ve been too mean to a game they like. That the reason we have to rely on ads from game companies is because you refuse to pay us. That the reason we don’t have degrees in journalism is because you refuse to pay us. That we have to work full time and do this on the side because you refuse to pay us.
I can only hope that you are going to put as much effort into fixing these issues, as you have in airing your grievances with us.
Thank you for reading.