Friday, September 05, 2014

A Long Post About #GamerGate

Okay. So, right upfront, I feel like I need to say that I’m posting this to my own blogs on my own time under my own name and my own name only because its coming 100% from me. It’s got nothing to do with any person I work for or any of the websites/outlets/etc my work appears on. Nobody asked me to write this, nobody asked me not to write it, and you shouldn’t take anything I have to say as either endorsement or rejection of anything any other person or entity has said or not said on the matter – personally or as a matter of policy. Being a grownup, I’m perfectly capable and willing to work for and alongside people who disagree with me, so long as it’s amicable and mutually respectful. I have done so in the past, and I expect to do so in the future.


The #GamerGate thing would seem to have gotten wildly out of hand, but that implies that it was ever “in hand” to begin with. Given that the entire thing began with a jilted boyfriend posting still yet-unproven allegations of his girlfriend cheating on him to the internet and only became a “gaming story” because the accused was an indie developer and one of the alleged paramours was a games journalist, thus giving the semblance of weight to otherwise outlandish long-held theories about how “arty” indie games are so beloved by (parts of) the gaming press but so commonly rejected by so-called “core gamers”… well, I question whether something with those beginnings can be said to have ever been “in hand” in the first place.

I can already hear some people jumping up to tell me that that’s not what it’s “really” about, that the origins were “just a spark,” etc. I hear you, and I will answer you. Keep reading, this is a long one – hence the blog instead of Twitter/Facebook/whatever.

It’s hard for me to “objective” about the organized campaign of harassment going on via social media, both before and now through the #GamerGate stuff. Mostly because so much of it is being launched against people who are my friends and colleagues, but also because it’s difficult for me to even find a proper way to respond – hence why I’ve occasionally been seen to resort to harsh language, angry name-calling or simply retweeting the anguish I’m seeing from others (those first two I’ve apologized for already, the third demands none.) The reason for my difficult is simple: To the degree that #GamerGate, or at least parts of it, aren’t just a loosely-organized blunderbuss being used shove female, LGBT, liberal/progressive etc voices out of game journalism; it seems instead to be seeking a solutions that can’t be implemented to combat a problem that doesn’t exist – or at least doesn’t exist to the degree that some believe it does.


The demand, we’re told, is for an end to “corruption.” But the fractured nature of this so-called movement has made it abundantly clear that there’s no one single definition of “corruption” that seems to satisfy every complaint. You begin to get the sense that “corruption” or “lack of integrity” have become buzzwords seized onto by a coalition that knows it wouldn’t get the same attention or presumption of seriousness if they simply yelled “Pay attention to me and tell me my input matters!!!” into the void, even though that’s what’s down at the heart of it all – and, frankly, games journalism should have seen this part of it coming.

As has been elaborated on at length by others elsewhere, at the root of the problems many people see in the gaming press is the fact that it began as and still very much is “enthusiast journalism,” meaning that the existing structures and many of the most entrenched, powerful, respected individuals and entities therein started out from a place largely more of awe and eagerness than skepticism and a desire to turn over rocks and dig through garbage: People who loved video games and thus already thought they mattered and were important writing largely for an audience that already agreed on that point. See also: Sportswriters. Different lyrics, same tune.

What this means (in part – just clipped out a lengthy digression about another part because it was straying off-topic, may revisit if there’s room) is that it’s a type of press that’s innately invested in a narrative of reinforced positivity on two fronts: Not just reassuring the medium “you are important enough for there to be journalism devoted to you,” but also telling the audience (or helping the audience tell itself) that “this thing that means so much to you is important enough to have journalism devoted to it.” In the early days of gaming fandom – particularly before the (mainstream-available) internet – being able to leaf through a big thick “real magazine” like GamePro or EGM or even Nintendo Power was reassuring unto itself: “They made a whole magazine about games! Pages and pages of maps and reviews and columns and news! With writers and editors – just like they make for big important stuff like sports or politics or movies! Video games matter! This proves it!”

And just as the number one rule of “playing ball” with the makers of the product being covered is to never make them feel disrespected, the number one rule of reassuring an enthusiast press’s readership is to continually reinforce their sense of self-worth and importance: Don’t tell your audience that they are a problem, or should change their behavior, or anything else like that – even if it happens to be true.

Helpfully, for a long time you’d have been hard-pressed to find an instance where “gamers” (though we weren’t called that yet) were really a problem of any real kind. They were the niche “dedicated” customers of a niche medium that existed mainly in arcade cabinets set up as time-wasters in roller-rinks and pizza shops or on PCs and/or dedicated consoles that only some households ever owned; mostly kids, teenagers and tech-hobbyists adults. The only reassuring we needed – craved, in fact – was that games weren’t stupid and that we weren’t wasting our time with them; and if you could tell us that in the form of a caricatured “take that!” to a parent, teacher or authority figure who’d ever insisted otherwise? All the better.


As I once offered as an explanation for the confrontational state of some gamers (among which I included myself) in a friendly conversation with a woman famous for socio-political analysis of video games (yes, probably the one you’re thinking of) that you can’t understand “gamer culture” without looking at it as a post-war veteranocracy. The entire notion of “gamer identity” as a singular thing (as opposed to “Nintendo fans,” “Sega fans,” “PC game fans,” etc) didn’t really exist until the 1990s, and it coalesced for one reason: The Censorship Wars. There was a very real possibility that figures like Jack Thompson were going to convince actual legal authorities to restrict or otherwise “clamp down” on video-game violence and the like, and only by assembling into a single unified front and pushing back were we able to hold it back from happening.

We won, but it’s now clear that the victory came at a terrible price: Since any criticism of games from a socio-political standpoint from “outsiders” was inevitably going to be seized on by Thompson etc as “evidence,” we trained ourselves to respond to such criticism in only one way: “No it doesn’t. You’re wrong. Games effect nothing. It’s just games. Go away.”

I think that was necessary at the time, in the same way that I think sometimes “civil disobedience” protests about far more important things DO have to break a window or vandalize a wall sometimes to get the point across: It was a “war,” at least as much of one as the situation could allow, we did what we had to do at the time. But afterwards, we should’ve turned it off. We should’ve moderated and figured out how to move our newly-minted “culture” forward. But we did not. Instead, we (“we” here meaning the presumed supermajority of self-professed “gamers”) contentedly let games grow bigger and bigger but not appreciably more thoughtful or (content-wise) diverse either in subject matter or development while we rested on our laurels – the rest of the media and academia paid us no mind because games were just dopey teenage boy stuff, and we were fine with that because the media and academia brought talk of politics and “isms” and we were just trying to have our escapism.

And we thought we were all together on that, still.


So when people like Anita Sarkeesian showed up, it wasn’t so much like a bomb going off but a shade being flung open. For what it’s worth, while I consider Mrs. Sarkeesian a friendly acquaintance and I support her work, I don’t necessarily agree with every conclusion reached or theory presented in the Tropes vs Women videos. That having been said, I also don’t see what about them is supposed to be so frightening or “radical.” The points she’s both making and jumping off from are fairly mild and uncontroversial in any other context: Introduction to Feminist Theory 101 as-filtered through video games. In any case, my observation is that the “discussion” that each video touches off is actually the most helpful/interesting thing about them.

Like I said, a curtain being flung open: The light fills up the dark room, and suddenly you can see that everything isn’t as pretty as you might have thought. The truth gets revealed – and in this case the “truth” was not necessarily “ALL GAMEZ R TEH SEXIST!” but that “we” weren’t quite as unified as we’d let ourselves believe. As it turned out, there were people in “gamer culture” who already weren’t happy about a lot of the things Sarkeesian and others were talking about, and now had occasion to let the rest of us know. Ever been told that something about you or that you’ve been doing is making a friend feel uncomfortable and you’d never had the inkling that had been the case until just then? It’s not a good feeling, whether you think there’s “merit” to their discomfort or not.

That many of those speaking up were journalists of people working on the fringes of the industry was inevitable for many factors (let’s not mince words: Big-time gaming is an aggressively masculine business, and so the indie and “art game” scene is packed with women and LGBT folks for whom that’s not just the ground floor but the space where they’ll have the most opportunity), but it made the schism that much easier: “Real” gamers – the kind who played the traditional money-making hits that had turned the industry from a niche to a powerhouse – versus “those other gamers;” with the added bonus of this happening during a smaller, pettier “war” between casual and “hardcore” that had been fought in the forums during the rise and tapering-off of the Wii phenomenon. Your classic snobs versus slobs fight, but with a socio-economic inversion: “Snobs” that include mostly small devs and chronically underpaid writers versus “Slobs” (of the positively self-indentified “Caddyshack” variety) mainly constituting people with disposable income and the billion-dollar game companies who make their favorite games.

But as to the journalists?


I understand how #GamerGate came to believe in the conspiracy theory that underpinned the first wave of the movement: “Gamer Culture” was, until recently (within the last decade or less, really) used to games journalism being more or less in line with itself ideologically, if not on every game. After all, game journalism in its present state has only really existed as long as “gamers” have, and for awhile it was a great double act: “I grew up playing Nintendo/Sega!” “As did I!” “Cool! That means your opinion is likely similar to mine! How’s this game?” “Here’s a graphics-number, a gameplay-number, a story-number and a total score!” “Thanks!” Simple as that.

But that’s the thing about criticism-as-journalism: Even if you come into it with the equivalent experience and taste of the average consumer, doing it for a living and experiencing more of the medium in a different way will inevitably change the way you look at it. This is why film critics are so eager to delve into independent cinema and foreign films and anything even slightly different from the norm: We watch more movies than the average person and we get sick of formula and familiarity faster. How many blockbusters did you see this summer? I saw them all, even the bad ones – I don’t need to see another actor outrun a green-screened fireball until at least the next Hobbit movie… and I like green-screened fireballs!

So it’s not surprising that the same would happen to the still young and evolving field of games criticism: All those mediocre Call of Duty, God of War and Assassin’s Creed clones you didn’t play because they got universally bad scores? Game critics played them. Is it really unbelievable that after doing that all damn day stuff like Flower, Gone Home, Journey, Depression Quest, etc would jump out at them and feel incredibly refreshing just by virtue of being different? The seeming affection for “social justice” (read: “liberal, but I’m not going to say ‘liberal’ as a slam because that’s what my FoxNews loving dad says and I’m totally not him because he’s all Jesusy and I read Dawkins!”) subjects like diversity and LGBT rights? Well, let’s be frank here: People coming from an academia background, especially in art/culture fields even including gaming… they tend to fall on the “progressive” side of things. You know it, I know, it is what it is.

I also get that, well… let me re-post a portion of a comment I left on a forum on the subject:

“90% of what any journalist (or critic, if we're being technical) will ever report on will involve people. Reporting on people means you have to talk to people, and talking to people often means for relationships of one kind or another to facilitate more direct, deeper discussion. Said simply: Sportswriters tend to become friends (and also enemies!) with athletes, coaches, managers, owners, etc. Food writers tend to do the same with chefs, cooks, vendors, etc. Film critics? Actors, directors, producers, technicians, grips, you name it. News reporters? Politicians, speechwriters, security personnel... you get the idea. These relationships are not just an unavoidable (if you're trying to do a good job) they are where much of the journalism comes from. When a news anchor says "sources tell us" or "insiders say," the "source" or "insider" they're talking about is generally not a bug on a telephone (that's illegal, in fact) or someone from their network crouched inside a crawlspace listening in on important business - it's a person they know, from whom they get information. Without exaggeration, this is how many if not most of the biggest and most-important news stories ever broken got broken.

It also means, yes, that journalists (being human) will occasionally have blind spots or a perspective colored by who they know and like - which is why you should get your information from as many sources as possible in order to get the most complete view possible.”

So… yeah. I get why people who don’t either work IN journalism or are only particularly passionate about one form thereof can look at things writers being on friendly terms (or more) with people in the medium they cover and see a shadow-conspiracy collaborating to push certain types of games or games of certain themes or “agendas”… but honestly, I’m looking and all I see is the regular bog-standard mechanics of an arts/entertainment journo community chugging along. You don’t have to like it – frankly, too much “like-mindedness” in media ISN’T a good thing, that I agree with – but that doesn’t make it The Illuminati.

Oh, and one more thing: As to “Death of The Gamer” thing? The language was probably needlessly harsh given the volatility of the moment… but I get where that was coming from. Seeing the mainstream media (or at least other parts of the “geek media”) put the spotlight on bad behavior by core gamers in the same timeframe as those statistics about half of gamers being adult women after all? I can see and even very much sympathize with some game critics getting excited at the prospect of having an audience of more diverse tastes to write for – an opportunity to write something beyond “Decent graphics, gameplay could use tightening, not as fresh as last year’s installment, 7/10” and still earn a living – and wanting to will it into existence.

I mean, as a film critic… if the “movie audience” was aligned as such that my reader/viewership wanted to hear about Transformers, The Expendables and NOTHING ELSE? And then I got the inkling that there was a chance the dam could break and I could suddenly ALSO be writing for people who might like to hear about Woody Allen or Werner Herzog once in awhile? Yeah, I might be inclined to get excited and preemptively dance on the “grave” of what’s already just a silly marketing label anyway. Inartful? Sure, but I get it.


As mad as I am at seeing #GamerGate being used (either by design, by co-opting or by scattershot aim) to push good writers and devs out of gaming… I’m not “worried” for most of them. Good writers will find work, and if gaming refuses to be a safe space for them (no, dealing with psychopathic harassment is not “the toll” for being a person on The Internet, and if it is we should not accept it) they may be happier working in another medium. I hate the abuse, I hate the harassment, and that’s why I’ve occasionally said some harsh things to the abusers and harassers. I’m human.

But what worries me almost as much and definitely makes me as mad and depressed is what this means for video games. Spoiler: It ain’t good. Gaming is in a pretty stagnant, going-through-the-motions place right now – to the point that NINTENDO games, even though the company has been aesthetically jogging in place for almost 20 years, now look and feel radical compared to how homogenous everything else looks and feels. But at least people are trying. You can see, between the margins of the Assassins Creed games or in the fuck-it-all weirdness of Saints Row, that there are people INSIDE this creatively-mummified industry struggling to be better and more interesting – and you can see the people in the indie/art scene who, if given the chance, will help that cause as they gradually bleed into the mainstream scene. You can see members of the gaming press ACHING for better, fresher, more interesting stuff to turn their readers onto.

If “we” chase that out now –if #GamerGate is really going to plant this flag and say “No politics, no deeper themes, no difficult subject matter, just more shooty-shooty-jump-jump-chest-high-wall and power-fantasies for insecure teenage boys because that’s REAL video games” and chase out (regardless of whether that’s the intent) different voices and opposite perspectives as collateral-damage in a “war” against some nebulous phantom of “corruption?” That’s not good. We will lose an ENTIRE generation of the developers who will make the games that bring gaming to the next artistic and cultural level, AND we will lose an entire generation of the writers and journalists who will write the criticism that will make the world take a second look at this medium and realize there is worth and value here after all. Francois Truffaut, Jean luc Goddard and “Cahiers du Cinema” made the world realize that “Hollywood junk” like noir detective films were actually great art – wouldn’t it be great if an outside-the-box game critic were to show the world that Mortal Kombat was actually a work of subversive genius? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to lose that.

Furthermore, while I support the right of gaming sites and other outlets to “go after” as big or small an audience as they want AND understand the (short-term) business logic of catering to “real gamers” at the expense of “casuals” or emerging audiences in terms of marketing or editorial style/policy… I also think those that do MIGHT be hurting themselves, in the long run. “Gamers” like me are a big audience right now, yes, but guys in their early 30s with disposable income become guys in their late-40s with bills and expenses faster than you think, so there’s both a ceiling and a time limit on THIS particular money-spigot. Ask yourself: Would you rather be IMAGE Comics, unstoppably huge for just under a decade only to collapse into a niche/nostalgia shell of your former glory when the party ends? Or would you rather be MARVEL Comics: Friendly to longterm fans but also aggressively courting new audiences and new outlets, and as a result the biggest and most powerful entertainment brand in the world right now? That doesn’t seem like a hard choice to me.

This is probably too long. I hope you read all the way down. I love video games. I loved what they were when I was a kid, I like what they are now with some MAJOR reservations and I’m hopeful about what they can become… but now I’m also worried about what they can fail to become if this current insanity goes on much longer.

Games journalism is imperfect, but there’s no conspiracy and what some have convinced themselves is a conspiracy (the “pushing” of indie/art/progressive-themed games) I see as (when done in good faith, to be clear) a common critics desire to better/broaden their own medium. People critiquing what they see as systemic, unwelcoming flaws in the medium are not they enemy, even if “we” disagree with them. A bigger, more diverse industry’s worth of games for a bigger, broader audience doesn’t mean YOUR demo has to “die” even if some critic jokingly snarks in that direction.

We can be better. We need to choose to be better. I hope we do.

Thank you for your time,
Bob Chipman.