What Can Be Done About Gaming’s Culture of Distrust?
Developers have turned on journalists, who are apparently waging a war against gamers, so how can we make a brighter future for what we hold dear?
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
You might've noticed that games went a bit wrong in 2014. It seems so long ago, now, that the hottest topics of forum discussion were suspect frame rates and the secrets of Shadow of the Colossus. That was before the tidal wave of shit that was Gamergate swallowed most rational conversation, smashing hobbyist bloggers and full-time critics, hardcore players and casual participants alike into a chorus of cacophonous cackling over issues that, for the most part, had fuck all to do with games.
But while we're still seeing the aftershocks of last summer's explosion of corrosive social media exchanges, the very worst of Gamergate appears behind us. (That hasn't stopped the harassment that some unfortunate, high-profile targets are receiving, as their Twitter feeds make perfectly clear.) We've all learned from it, be that something useful to shape our profession going forward, or reinforcing long-held fears regarding immature, regressive attitudes amongst a very small community of games enthusiasts.
Developers themselves, at least those that spoke up, were almost unanimously onside with press outlets throughout Gamergate's tumultuous beginnings. After all, why would anyone making games go after those covering them? Whatever the profile of YouTubers' Let's Play series, the traditional press plays a considerable part in influencing not only mainstream consumers but also the marketing men behind new releases. It's just like music, film, theater, food, sex toys, whatever: You want the best-known names on your advertising, and right now Edge and Polygon are more, let's say, authoritative endorsements than a squealed seal of approval from "speedyw03." (No offense intended to "speedyw03".)
But now, belatedly, developers have entered the fray in a fairly public fashion. What was a dispute purely between a minority of those who play games and small number of those paid to report on them has enveloped games makers of such high standing as Ken Levine, the man who (as head of a very talented team) gave us the BioShock series. He endorsed, via Twitter, a Change.org petition posted by MEK Entertainment CEO Mark Kern, asking that Polygon and Kotaku "lead the way in healing the rift in video games." Sounds noble enough when put like that, but read on a little and there's plenty that's suspect about Kern's published perspective on this disagreement.
"We're asking you, as the vanguard of the face of gamers to the mass media and the wider non-gaming masses, to help heal this rift and fix the damage you have caused." Seems a little unreasonable, doesn't it? Attributing the Gamergate blame to the websites that covered it, rather than the—come on now, they are—absolute dick weasels whose campaign of hostility across Twitter and various forums threatened to permanently ruin the reputation of gamers in the eyes of those "non-gaming masses." Websites report on happenings relevant to their audiences—and when shit goes south in gaming, you can bet that Polygon and Kotaku are going to be among the first to not only deliver the facts, but also publish related opinion pieces. It's what their readership comes for.
'BioShock: Infinite', Beast of America trailer
Some accusations of "yellow journalism," directed at these sites (and others, including VICE), have held a little water along the way, and it's entirely correct that these businesses need to maintain a certain level of traffic, and that controversial headlines (note: not entirely misleading ones) are the ideal carrot to get the socials-browsing audience to chow down on your content. Complain about that model all you like, but it's existed forever; you might call it "clickbait" online, but the print media's been calling it "headlines" since newspaper presses first cranked into action.
Writes Kern, regarding what he perceives as yellow journalism on the parts of Kotaku and Polygon: "...the gaming press are accountable for conflagrating [the rift] through a slew of articles that only served to fan the flames, celebrate the hate on both sides, magnify the rift and sensationalize the issue. There is a term for this, called yellow journalism, and it has started wars before. It has no place in a gaming press that is supposed to support our industry and gamers, in particular, of all walks."
Stop right there, Mark, because I think you're asking us to back the views of people like Milo Yiannopoulos, a confessed non-gamer who's been piggybacking Gamergate purely to benefit his Breitbart clicks, with some spectacularly yellow journalism. To side with the actions of those who'd threaten "the deadliest school shooting in American history" to prevent games industry commentators from appearing in public, just in case they might suggest that gaming's representation of women hasn't been All That Good to date. To agree that, absolutely, these girl gamers probably should be raped, or worse, because they dare to dream that, one day, they might not have to play as Generic Muscle Man. That the swatters and doxxers have got their reasons, right?
And so on, until you're blue in the face. I'm of the opinion that almost every person who calls themselves a gamer is completely cool, open minded, and wants both greater diversity in the kind of games we can play today, and for women to feel absolutely accepted in a culture that's several generations away from being close to defined. Not all gamers are alike, just as fans of music aren't alike, just as followers of a single band aren't all alike—what unites us is a passion that's both deeply personal and widely shared, depending how you slice it. It is only the tiniest number of tools who've caused unrest since day one. The whole Law & Order-doing-Gamergate debacle that seemed to influence Kern's petition was directly inspired by this miniscule section of an otherwise disparate, progressive group of people: an instance of art imitating life, but more the scum that grows in its stagnant corners than the colorful cornucopia below.
Just who can the uninitiated turn for trustworthy correspondence on the continuing, albeit receding, rot at the heart of contemporary games culture? The press? Any outlet worth its URL is going to have an agenda—that's why you choose one site over another. That's why in the UK we have the Telegraph and the Guardian, the Sun, and the Daily Mirror, so as to best serve a population split on the kind of content they want to read on a daily basis, and the political bias contained therein. You can typically only trust the press to tell you what it needs to in order to best serve its audience, and if you're not part of it, you're best off elsewhere.
The gamers themselves, then: what's their stance on Gamergate's fallout? Most simply don't care, and didn't when Zoe Quinn's name was being dragged through the mud, because they had no idea who Quinn was, and still don't. They buy the games, play the games, trade in the games, get new games; lather, rinse, and repeat. I dare say that the greater percentage of Call of Duty players isn't going to rush out to buy the console release of Gone Home when it comes out, but all but the smallest number from that demographic aren't about to flame up over whether or not it should be so critically acclaimed, whether it's part of some wider feminist propaganda, or whether it's even a game at all. Couldn't. Give. A. Fuck.
And that leaves the developers. At the time of publishing, Kern's got 2,005 signees on his petition. I don't actually know what Polygon or Kotaku feel they need to do once the arbitrarily magic number of 2,500 signatures is achieved, but at a guess: a cloud of smoke billows around the staffers, and their real forms are finally revealed. Ahahaha, look at them, the hideous, odious, scumbag little... Oh, no, wait. They're just guys and girls who like games, and want them to grow up and be more accepting of the many walks of life that people lead in the 21st century. Kern says he supports women in gaming, but then of course he does, because he's not insane.
Levine's not nuts, either. In 2013's BioShock Infinite, his Irrational Games studio realized one of the most significant female characters of recent gaming generations. She wasn't playable, but she wasn't simply there to be saved, either—Elizabeth was an invaluable partner, with a compelling backstory and essential role to play in a complicated narrative. He told me, just before Infinite came out, "We knew that if we got Elizabeth right, then we could get the game right." He's talking about her AI, but you can easily enough explicate the sentiment to mean something more important: how women are presented in video games today.
I trust that these people, Kern and Ken, are right-minded fellows, with their hearts on what's best for gaming, today and tomorrow. Kern's petition was ill-advised, though, and will ultimately achieve nothing except further arguments. (Patrick Garret's takedown of it for VG24/7 is a must-read if you've any interest in industry politics.) Kotaku isn't about to dramatically alter its editorial policies because a few thousand people who don't even read the site requested it. It knows what its audience wants.
Critics will always disagree over whether a game is a worthy investment or ripe for a kicking, and we're about to see that merry dance play out just as soon as the embargo for coverage of The Order: 1886 lifts (oh, what a scene that'll be). Developers will always be cut by negative feedback, but they're only people: Of course it hurts to be told that something you've spent so many years on is a crock of shit. Journalists aren't in a bind at all; we just don't always think you're amazing, Ken.
Gamers? Some will always suspect that the press is paid for a glowing review, and that it missed out on a backhander when it puts the boot in. That we're all corrupt, broken, and it's not just the page views we do this for, but also the worst thing of all: filthy, stinking lucre, at the expense of the people whose money actually feeds the creation of new games. We're pocketing the notes that the publishers dish out, like naïve citizens of Gotham circling Joker's float full of triple-A cash. If that was the truth of the matter, I wouldn't see gaming editors tweet about only having $90 to get them through until next week's payday. Nobody's driving around in a Lamborghini for caring about games culture beyond the current iteration of popular football franchises.
The only way that this distrust that's grown up around us—and it was here before Gamergate, which was merely an amplifier—is going to recede is to... Shit, I don't know. If I did I'd have shared the solution it long ago. A pacifist stance probably isn't the answer. Action's needed, and it's not petitions; but to agree with Kern it's definitely not needless sensationalizing of an issue that really doesn't need any more televised flights of fiction for it to seem utterly absurd. Weaponizing our words won't lead to any sensible end, although by all means keep them sharpened for the few insufferable chumps that need cutting down to size.
At some point we do have to club together, to extract the poison and get on with what's important: making games that matter, for an audience that cares. And that can mean many things. Call of Duty is no more or less worthy a piece of gaming's culture than Gone Home. Liverpool FC's winning of 18 league titles does not mean that natives of the city can't pledge their allegiance to the comparatively underachieving Everton. That's one hell of a bitter rivalry, but just the other week a tribute to the 96 Liverpool fans that died in 1989's Hillsborough Disaster was unveiled at Everton's home ground, Goodison Park. Sometimes darkness can only be chased away by the bridging of apparent enemies. It's worth a try, isn't it?
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