GamerGate’s threat to journalistic independence

Why the self-styled ‘consumer revolt’ isn’t about ethics in games journalism.

“No one, now, minds a con man. But no one likes a con man who doesn’t know what we think we want.” — George W.S. Trow.

ON AUGUST 15, 2015, the Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists held an event known as SPJAirPlay, which attempted to get to the bottom of the online phenomenon known as ‘GamerGate’ on the occasion of its first anniversary.

While the opportunity offered by SPJAirPlay might have yielded interesting results, it had no chance of success as soon as the panels were announced. GamerGate was well-represented; so was professional journalism. What was missing, however, was anyone who might have offered insights on gaming journalism not based on hearsay, a political agenda, or an ethics manual.

The major revelation (admission, for those who have been following GamerGate) came from Milo Yiannopoulos, a writer for the right-wing website Breitbart representing the GamerGate position. AirPlay host Michael Koretzky asked him: “Where does GamerGate end on ethics and get into what you called ‘social justice warriors’?” Yiannopoulos responded: “These things are not separable.” If people disagree, “they’re wrong”.

One might question Yiannopoulos’ real attachment to the movement, since he wrote in an article on the game Grand Theft Auto Online, published at Breitbart on August 14, 2014 — just as GamerGate was about to begin — that violent video games were “the last resort of the frustrated beta male”; gamers themselves he dismissed as “weirdos in yellowing underpants”. Nonetheless, that he should have been selected as one of the luminaries of GamerGate means that when he calls ethics and opposing ‘social justice warriors’ “not separable”, we must take him at his word.

To a professional journalist, GamerGate’s dedication to the cause of ‘ethics in games journalism’ should have begun to appear suspicious from that moment. What made GamerGate possible is that a discussion of ‘ethics in games journalism’ is indeed long overdue; but GamerGate’s only contribution to the debate is a politicized sideshow that will likely prevent a real discussion of the present situation.

GamerGate was very successful in its gambit to position itself as the only possible upholder of ‘ethics in games journalism’, to the extent that the claim is now made that if you are for ethics, you must be with GamerGate — no alternative. For those whose primary concern is indeed ‘ethics in games journalism’, to make this assumption would be a fatal mistake, as GamerGate will not succeed in changing the current state of affairs; and that is because, in spite of its incessant claims to the contrary, it does not want to.

How to exploit the genuinely disreputable state of the gaming press in pursuit of a political agenda.

The gaming press has a bad name, has had one for years, and deservedly so. The first example of journalism ethics to be mentioned is usually that of Jeff Gerstmann, a reviewer at GameSpot who was fired for (it was then thought) giving a low score to Eidos’ Kane & Lynch, a game massively advertised at his outlet. That was in 2007. Gerstmann himself confirmed in 2012 that it was the low scores he had given to a few games (and not, as was previously believed, just Kane & Lynch) which got him terminated.

By the time GamerGate appeared, Gerstmann’s firing was nearly seven years old. The usual second ethics case, that of ‘Doritogate’, which demonstrated in one picture (a video reviewer surrounded by Doritos products, hence the name) why the gaming press could not be respected, occurred in 2012.

Whatever happened, then, in mid-August 2014, to launch GamerGate? Something referred to as “the Zoe post”, in which the ex-boyfriend of an independent game designer by the name of Zoe Quinn published a post accusing her of having slept around to promote her game — an independent, completely free-to-play game known as Depression Quest. The “Zoe post” named a writer at the gaming site Kotaku (part of the Gawker network) as one of her partners. After investigation, Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo stated that the writer had only covered another event involving Quinn, and that was before they became romantically attached; the writer had never talked about nor reviewed Depression Quest.

Amidst all the possible conflicts of interest in the gaming press going back several years, this is what launched GamerGate.

In addition to Zoe Quinn, who was not to be left alone even after Totilo’s exoneration, GamerGate started targeting Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist academic who never claimed to be a journalist in the first place, and other people, most of them women, who are more or less marginal to games journalism and the games industry. Meanwhile, real conflicts of interest involving the gaming press attracted little attention from the movement.

Hiding in plain sight behind GamerGate’s purported ethical considerations is a right-wing agenda, which Yiannopoulos made even more obvious at SPJAirPlay, as did the presence at that event of Christina Hoff Sommers, an academic with the American Enterprise Institute whose area of interest is feminism, not ethics.

Far from desiring the independence of the gaming press, GamerGate is the enforcer of the status quo.

GamerGate claims to have no leaders, which allows it incredible versatility when it has to distance itself from actions that may have been undertaken by individual supporters. Harassment, invasions of privacy by releasing confidential information (‘doxing’), and threats of all sorts have invariably been explained away by GamerGate using the ‘no-true-Scotsman’ fallacy, or pointing the finger at opponents of the movement. While these incidents do not fall within the purview of this article — which should not be construed as an attempt to downplay them or dismiss their veracity — one should keep them in mind in the context of ethical behavior. (Suffice it to say that the writer of this article saw the ‘doxing’ of SPJAirPlay panelists in real time while watching the morning segment online, with GamerGate following the aforementioned modus operandi when confronted with it: Not us. Never us.)

There is one thing, however, that GamerGate openly, proudly states: that it is a ‘consumer revolt’. After all, who wouldn’t want to stand up for the rights of the consumer?

Unfortunately, GamerGate is less about consumer protection than it is about ensuring ‘the customer is always right’, a phrase which anyone who has worked in retail will recognize as the last resort of someone who has no valid argument to offer.

Let’s go back to Gerstmann. Clearly, game consumers’ rights were being flouted by his firing. Nobody is denying that. He had given low scores to games advertised on GameSpot, and he had paid the price.

Then what are we to make of GamerGate’s own “Operation Disrespectful Nod”, which intended to encourage advertisers to carry out exactly what they did to Gerstmann in 2007?:

“At this stage of the game, there are not going to be many people out of the loop about what is really going on, though there still may be. So, it is important to keep the emails short and to the point. What we want to convey is that we are no longing supporting the sites they advertise on, why we are not doing it, and what the consequences for them advertising on the site (if any) are. With that in mind, the following are some easy steps to craft emails:
Step 1: Choose a company e-mail from the list of advertisers below;
Step 2: Politely introduce yourself and why you are contacting them;
Step 3: Give one example of the reason why you can not support the site in question;
Step 4: Give the reasons why this is important to you;
Step 5: Conclude with the action you are going to take if they continue to support the website in question;
Step 6: Thank them for their time and offer your assistance if further information is needed, should you choose.”

“Operation Disrespectful Nod” included most of the famous gaming sites, and another boycott list included mainstream media which had weighed in negatively against GamerGate. The detailed plans of “Disrespectful Nod” also listed articles from the gaming press that GamerGate considered particularly offensive. None of these involved actual ethical breaches (as journalists define them), only repeated assertions that ‘gamers are dead’, or a progressive agenda that GamerGate is at odds with. (Nonetheless, the strategy briefly proved successful with one advertiser, Intel, which pulled its advertising from trade publication Gamasutra, before not only resuming its ads but also announcing a $300-million diversity-in-technology venture.)

The Gerstmann firing revealed the proximity of the gaming press to the advertisers producing what it covered. It indicated that, throughout the gaming press, the wall between advertising and editorial was paper-thin, if it existed at all. It probably hasn’t changed, as the gaming press is still beholden not only to its advertisers for its existence but also to game publishers for material. And GamerGate, far from objecting to this state of affairs, is exploiting it to strong-arm advertisers and game publishers into putting pressure on the offending gaming publication’s editorial production. Were it to work, why would GamerGate ever want this to end?

This isn’t ‘ethics in gaming journalism’; it is the exact opposite of ethics.

In the GamerGate mindset, it is not financial pressure which is the greatest impediment to an ethical gaming press, but progressive political viewpoints, especially those that could trigger an existential crisis within the ‘gamer’ community (which also explains why the movement targets independent game designers instead of major publishers). As seen above, GamerGate readily uses financial pressure as a tool to prevent editorial transgressions. GamerGate, far from desiring the editorial independence of the gaming press, wants to keep it subservient to what ‘gamers’ (as defined by the movement) want to read, and nothing else, with the help of advertisers, game publishers and highers-up at the publication itself if need be.

Instances of this could be found even before GamerGate. In 2013, gamers launched an online petition to get Carolyn Petit, a GameSpot reviewer, fired because of her review of Grand Theft Auto V. Her crime had been to find misogyny in the game, and ‘gamers’ detested that, in spite of her giving the game a score of 9/10 (a perfect ten would undoubtedly have been more palatable). In 2014, for whatever reason (which may have had nothing to do with this incident), Petit was let go from GameSpot.

GamerGate itself gave us “Operation Bayonetta 2”, and the ‘culprit’ in this case was Polygon, a frequent target of the movement for no other reason than its politics. GamerGate began by citing all the various scores given to Bayonetta 2, all 90 percent and up, and ended with Polygon’s: 7.5/10. Ouch. By games-reviewing standards, anything below 8/10 is a failure. GamerGate not only objected to the score (clearly it had to be wrong since it failed to align with everyone else’s) but also to the tenor of the review: “It’s good, but I’m offended”, was GamerGate’s own summary of it. Read that again: in its pursuit of ‘ethics in gaming journalism’, GamerGate left unaddressed the rampant grade inflation of game reviews and instead took issue with the lowest-scored review of a game.

So, what’s a GamerGate supporter to do? Predictably, go on the offensive:

“If you buy Bayo 2 for Wii U, do the Club Nintendo survey and explicitly state that you were unhappy with how Polygon chose to represent the game. Polygon chose to focus on sexualizing Bayo 2 over the actual gameplay and gave it a lower score because of that. Cut Polygon out of Nintendo Press Material.”

It’s not unfitting that GamerGate should ask Nintendo to control what is being said about its games, since GamerGate’s reviewing guidelines are for all intents and purposes plucked from Nintendo Power circa 1990: Don’t talk politics, especially not ‘social justice’ politics, just tell us objective things, like whether the game is fun to play! Now that’s objectivity.

Under these circumstances, what independence of thought can a games reviewer have, if readers themselves are to bulldoze the wall between advertising and editorial at the first opportunity?

Already, there is an implication that a discussion of misogyny in video games is incompatible with the desires of the games consumer, as though the latter term were already so defined as to exclude game players with specific concerns, or with a different political outlook. (Even Yiannopoulos, before GamerGate, could be found writing about game studio Rockstar’s “reckless lack of care about games that depict violent, public rape in quite granular detail”, a remark with which both moral conservatives and ‘social justice warriors’ would likely have agreed.) GamerGate objects to the politicization of games coverage from the Left, but welcomes it from the Right, while enabling pressure from advertisers on the content of the gaming press.

But what’s the biggest argument against GamerGate? It’s that even its martyr saint, Jeff Gerstmann, openly rejected the movement:

“GamerGate has created a group of people who speak in political terms and attack the people they disagree with in the same way a political action group would target someone speaking out against that group’s specified cause. They talk in circles that feel like they’re designed to waste as much time as possible, exhausting their target in the process.”

Ethics in games journalism indeed.

‘The Escapist’, a cautionary tale on following GamerGate all the way to the bottom.

The Escapist, owned by Defy Media, prides itself on being “the mouthpiece of the gaming generation”. It “aims to capture and celebrate the contemporary video gaming lifestyle and the diverse global video game culture”. It was also one of the rare established gaming media (perhaps even the only one) which openly embraced GamerGate.

The wedding came in September 2014 in a five-page note by Escapist publisher Alexander Macris (also a VP at Defy), which not only unveiled the new Defy Media journalistic guidelines — making disclosures of conflicts of interest mandatory — but also spent four pages defining the word ‘Gamer’, or, more accurately, the gaming ‘enthusiast’. Macris’s note can be summarized by these lines on the first page (emphasis his):

Not everyone who plays games is a gamer. A gamer is a game enthusiast, a person whose primary hobby or avocation is the enjoyment of games. The “enjoyment of games” is a deeper pursuit than merely playing them. It encompasses dedication towards their mastery; understanding of their history; commentary on the design; insight as to their relationships into the web of source material from which they are derived.”

If one reads between the lines of his entire statement, though, what differentiates an ‘enthusiast’ from other people is how much one spends on video games, how much one consumes. Just as it was embracing ethical tenets, The Escapist was in effect making itself attractive to advertisers by telling them exactly which demographic it was aimed at.

But if September 2014 was the wedding of The Escapist and GamerGate, the consummation took place long before the movement even existed.

In November 2012, Defy’s predecessor, Alloy Digital, announced it had acquired The Escapist from Themis Media. The press release quoted Macris:

“We saw that games were clearly becoming the cornerstone of the 12–34 demographic’s lifestyle and built The Escapist to create premium content that engaged the extreme passion we saw among game and entertainment enthusiasts. Alloy Digital brings that same focus to building brands and communities around these consumers’ core interests and, with this move, we are energized to take The Escapist’s award-winning content to the next level.”

This is GamerGate avant la lettre. All the key words are there: ‘demographic’, ‘lifestyle’, ‘extreme passion’, ‘enthusiasts’. And then there is this: “Building brands and communities around these consumers’ core interests.” Is not an ‘enthusiast’ someone who does not consume.

The same press release also quoted Tom Kurz, introduced as “Co-Founder and Chairman of Themis Media and The Escapist” (emphasis mine):

“Joining forces with Alloy Digital allows The Escapist tremendous opportunities to bring our premium content to an even wider audience and offers significant promotional synergies that will further build upon a brand that has uniquely captured a passionate and dedicated community.”
“The Escapist also brings longstanding relationships with advertisers that have valued the quality of our content aimed at this core audience, and we look forward to leveraging Alloy Digital’s deep ties to the advertising community in order to expand our offerings.”

As recently as June 2014, two months before GamerGate, Advertising Age, a trade publication, was writing, after Viacom had bought a minority stake in Defy Media, that (emphasis mine):

“Beyond selling ads, Defy also makes money from merchandise sales and content syndication. But it is also exploring a subscription-based streaming video service, [Defy CEO Matt] Diamond said. He described the company’s efforts as early-stage testing but said that at some point it will launch aggressively. Viacom does “have a subscription revenue part of their business [and the deal] allows us to peek into that,” he said.
“Additionally Defy Media will promote Viacom’s brands and content across its owned digital properties and network of third-party sites. Whether the arrangement would go the other way toward syndicating Defy’s content on Viacom’s properties “fits in the category of strategy development and other partnerships the companies are working on,” Mr. Diamond said.
In addition to Viacom, Defy Media’s investors include Lionsgate, ZelnickMedia and ABS Capital.”

Viacom owns MTV and Paramount. Lionsgate is a film studio. ZelnickMedia controls Take-Two Interactive, which has two famous game publishers as subsidiaries, Rockstar and 2K Games. All that is now spelled out in the Defy ethics guidelines introduced in 2014. No more surreptitious conflicts of interest.

And yet, looking at The Escapist nearly a year later, one would be hard pressed to notice any improvement of the content; if anything, in spite of all the disclosures, it has become worse, and Defy Media’s website still openly talks of its own brands.

GamerGate considers honest but unorthodox video games criticism an attack on the gamer lifestyle.

The reason why The Escapist has not improved in spite of all these ethics in gaming journalism is because The Escapist has never directly peddled products; it peddles a lifestyle. Validate the lifestyle, and people will buy. From this perspective, adherence to an ethical code of conduct is abnegation without sacrifice, as such a code enforces disclosure of matters that most gamers had long learned to live with and continue treating as secondary, if not irrelevant. Ethical guidelines are a solution to a minor problem that hides another, affecting a large part of the gaming press, which remains unaddressed and pernicious: that, because of the primacy of lifestyle over individual products, to cover games is to advertise them. (This might also explain the gaming press’s conspicuous silence over GamerGate: mention is promotion.) Among readers, nobody is as aware of this, nor as dedicated to making certain that this continue, as GamerGate.

This makes moot the conventional approach to journalism ethics one would associate with the Society of Professional Journalists. For instance, The Escapist’s approach to video games and video-gaming-culture (fantasy, science fiction, comics, etc.) journalism — a trait it shares with a large segment of the gaming press — is holistic enough that it defies the very notion that a wall between advertising and editorial could ever be successfully erected: there is no clear border between them, and there might not even be a clear difference between them, even as the content of the publication respects its code of ethics to the letter.

As Defy Media’s own terminology makes explicit, the content — the brand — is the product; and the lifestyle sustains the brand. Why risk lying about the (‘objective’) merits of specific products or sacking reviewers for (‘objective’) low scores if the result is to bring discredit upon the brand and possibly the lifestyle that sustains it? In fact, The Escapist’s most famous contributor, Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw, built his brand on being notoriously cantankerous about the (‘objective’) failings of large-budget games, and that is not because he does not respect video games or the culture build around them. Instead, what is always lurking underneath Croshaw’s output — it’s especially discernible when one compares his ‘Zero Punctuation’ videos with his written essays — is a sincere attempt to (‘objectively’) improve video games.

Game reviewers might call this tough love; game publishers might also call it a test audience. After all, every self-respecting video game publisher must have the game consumers’ interests at heart. And on the Internet, word of mouth on video games gets out fast. In this context, it’s better not to lie. By appearing to take a risk, the publication gains; it reinforces the aura of integrity around the brand. From there, the publication can attract large enough a following to become the loudest mouthpiece for a specific demographic, and advertisers will have to come to it or risk missing out. By respecting its audience, it can gain an influence it can use on the studios to push for better games. At least that’s how the reasoning is supposed to go.

Noble though this may sound, it really explains the subservient state of the gaming press today. Gamers, and game reviewers, really want to love games, hence the grade inflation and the general disregard of it (as long as grades are ‘objectively’ honest) as a problem by GamerGate; and a gaming publication, by necessity, becomes little more than a matchmaking service between producers and consumers of video games and video-games culture. Hence the content of gaming publications must do nothing more than please its readers, and must at all costs avoid alienating them. Those who threaten the lifestyle, regardless of how much they might contribute to it, by daring to offer another perspective become a nuisance.

Take the case of The Escapist. After the emergence of GamerGate, the gaming generation very quickly provided its mouthpiece with a list of the contributors it deemed undesirable, and within a few months most if not all of them were no longer writing there, among them the marquee names of Jim Sterling, ‘Moviebob’ Chipman, and editor-in-chief Greg Tito. To an outsider, the website — now a shell of its former self — is likely to induce claustrophobia, and after a year of marriage with GamerGate, there is nothing to recommend it to the non-enthusiast, let alone the professional journalist. The Escapist has, by design, escaped into irrelevance to the world at large, and vice versa.

And that is the problem not just with The Escapist, but with the gaming press in general. It is insular. Its target audience is likely to believe itself misunderstood, and under siege by outsiders who do not comprehend video games culture or hold it in contempt. It is at the mercy of its advertisers, yet its audience wants to believe, Gerstmann notwithstanding, that this is as it should be, for it hopes that there could exist a harmonious triangle, an unbreakable bond, between the games industry, the gaming press, and itself.

For example, since it is known that bonuses to game developers have been tied to their games’ aggregate Metacritic rating by professional reviewers, what could be more threatening, to a ‘gamer’ who thinks that the interests of game developers are the same as his, than a ‘social justice warrior’ at Polygon bestowing 7.5/10 on a game that other critics ‘objectively’ declared a near-masterpiece? (Compare this to the fate of the few film critics who dared to spoil a perfect rating for certain films at Rotten Tomatoes.) To advance that the points of the triangle do not ultimately share the same interests, that they might even be at odds with one another — why, that is sacrilege.

To open up games to academic scrutiny beyond that which bestows endless praise or artistic elevation (without any of the requirements of art), that too is unacceptable, as Anita Sarkeesian realized soon enough. Those precious games, formulaic or morally objectionable though they might be, must never be criticized except by using the usual ‘objective’ criteria, because to criticize (or, indeed, produce) games in any other way means to criticize the lifestyle. And that, gamers can’t allow.

Hence GamerGate.