#GamerGate: Actually about ethics, after all.
In a shocking twist, it turns out that #gamergate really is deeply concerned with ethics in video game journalism.
It turns out they’re not a fan of the idea.
They’re not looking for an end to the collusion they suspect between game journalists and developers, but an expansion of that collusion to include themselves. They—as the perceived “base” of the gaming market—want to be the ones who call the shots for what games get reviewed and promoted, and thus made.
Now, I know the predictable response here is that this is just how the market works, it’s just good business sense for an industry to produce games that its customer base wants.
But here’s the thing: if they really were the solid customer base they believe themselves to be, there would be nothing for them to fight against. If you complain about lack of diversity in representation or lack of variety in games, #gamergate “activists” will tell you that the market has decided in their favor, but this elides the fact that the market never does actually make up its mind but “decides” anew again and again, every day.
What #gamergate wants to do is stop the wheel from turning while they’re still on top of it, to freeze the market at the point where it is decidedly in their favor.
Now, I’m not saying that every member of #gamergate consciously and deliberately has this goal. The human brain is not a rational organ; it’s a rationalizing one. Most of the people in #gamergate truly believe that they’re just standing up for what’s right, trying to expose journalistic corruption and trying to free the free market from artificial shackles.
But the thing is that if you stay on a slanted surface long enough, it starts to look level to you. And if the slant benefits you, you have every psychological motivation you need to pretend it’s not there and resist attempts to level things out.
This is exactly the situation that #gamergate is in. The playing field has been tilted towards them for so long that they accept it as natural, and view any straightening of the tilt as something unfair, some artificial or outside influence that must be fought against in order to maintain the balance that their brain insists is right and fair.
They have a three pronged approach for this.
Prong one is what the gamers who make up the core of #gamergate have always done, which is to try to make gaming hostile for people they fear will shift the market in a way that tilts the playing field back towards level. For a while this was sufficient, until the proliferation of tools for indie game development, promotion/marketing, and financing made it possible for the people they sought to alienate to break into the market anyway.
#gamergate will tell you that games like Depression Quest and Gone Home are terrible, but one only has to look at the specific form of their complaints about Gone Home making it into a mass market like the Wii U store to understand that it’s not the quality of these games they object to. It’s the fact that people actually like them and will pay money for them.
We all have our tastes, so what does it hurt them if people want to play Gone Home? The answer is simple: it reveals the fact that the market does not inherently favor their tastes.
When I say that #gamergate is trying to overturn the free market, I get flooded with tweets saying “ACTUALLY #GAMERGATE IS TRYING TO RESTORE THE FREE MARKET.” Except their idea of a free market is a market that is free of anything they don’t personally like, as proven by the backlash against Gone Home expanding into consoles.
So this brings us to the second prong of their market-freezing strategy. Since the internet has brought tools that allows indie gamers to make games not curated by the tendency of the industry to pander to its perceived base (thus revealing the hollow core of that perception), #gamergate attacks those tools.
Look at any round-up of supposed evidence of corruption, collusion, and/or inappropriate relationships that #gamergate bloggers put together and you’ll likely notice how petty and shallow the supposed connections they’re trying to weave into a conspiracy are.
This person said howdy to that person on Twitter.
That person gave $5 to a Kickstarter ran by this person.
This person had a $1 a month Patreon pledge to that person’s project.
Now, I’m not a game developer. I’m a writer who operates in indie, online zine, and small press circles. But I’ll tell you something about those circles: they are small and close knit and overlap with each other. If I had to sign an indie writer code of conduct that said I can’t be friends with anyone I might submit a story to, or that I can’t contribute financially to a book or zine that I’m eyeing publication in, I would have few friends and few markets that I could publish in.
And this is not because of some sort of shady scandal-ridden “pay for play” system that bedevils the speculative fiction market. It’s because the same people who write fiction are the same people who read fiction are the same people who buy fiction.
It’s very possible that as you climb the ladder of the established Publishing Industry, glad-handing and nepotism and cronyism become a problem. But even without overt examples of actual corruption, you’ll still be left with the fact that people in publishing will tend to know each other, and people who know each other will have a better idea of what they’re in the market for or what kind of presentation will catch their eye, et cetera.
Networking, in other words, will always be part of any entertainment industry.
It’s part of every industry.
And as somebody who is a self-conscious introvert even online, let me tell you: I’ll be the first one to stand up and say how much it sucks that I have to network myself to sell my writing.
But it’s not a sign of a corrupt system.
And to compare the kind of networking that happens at the indie level, at the entry level, with the kind of cronyism that could be a real problem in the multimillion dollar levels of a billion dollar industry? It’s beyond disingenuous.
#gamergate is never going to know how many expense account dinners happen on Corporate Gaming’s dime. #gamergate is never going to know how many backroom deals go down, how many Gentlemen’s Agreements are brokered over a handshake, because you can’t screen cap a handshake.
But they know when two gaming enthusiasts/bloggers/indie developers say nice things about each other’s projects over Twitter, when they boost each other’s crowdfunding campaigns, and so forth.
If you point this out on Twitter, you’ll get #gamergate accounts running to point out that they care deeply about corruption at all levels of the industry and asking if you have any specific examples of such collusion at the top.
But this is, as I said, disingenuous. To quote Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
And #gamergate, in its majestic equality, is equally concerned with EA executives tweeting nice things about each other while they contribute to each other’s IndieGoGo fundraisers as they are with indie personalities doing so.
The irony of ironies is that all the “corruption” #gamergate points to among the lower reaches of the gaming industry is stuff that’s happening in the open, with total transparency. The tweeting, the fundraising, the boosting… all done right where everybody can see it, as if the people mutually supporting and promoting each others’ works have no shame.
And of course they don’t.
Because there’s no shame in it.
Paying into a Kickstarter isn’t like investing in a project the traditional way. It does not actually give you a financial stake in the finished product. It does not produce or reveal a conflict of interest.
If a journalist pays $5 or $50 or even $500 towards a Kickstarted video game and then goes on to say nice things about it… well, why wouldn’t they? They believed in it enough to donate their own money to bring it about. They don’t stand to get anything extra back if the game goes platinum and they don’t lose anything if it bombs.
But #gamergate wants us to believe that this sort of thing represents a conflict of interest.
Well, think about what it would mean if this kind of “ethical standard” became an article of faith in the gaming industry.
It would mean that if you believed in an indie project, you could either support it financially or you could say nice things about it in public, but not both.
It would mean there is a roof on how much support any person can give an indie project, how much you’re allowed to believe in an indie project, how much work one person can do to make an indie project reality.
All of a sudden, the sorts of games that #gamergate doesn’t want to succeed have that much harder a time making it to the market.
That’s prong two, and it involves weakening ethics in video game journalism by diluting them with phony concerns, conflating street-level networking with boardroom-level collusion.
Prong three, though, is where #gamergate’s attack on journalistic integrity reaches a fever pitch.
If you ask #gamergate what they want, sooner or later most people representing the hashtag will mention that they want reviews to be “objective” and free of “political lensing” or “agendas” or “soapboxing”.
They’ve even gone so far as demanding it be accepted as an ethical standard that any journalist who objects to the content of a game not review it. Such a review, they say, will be biased and unfair and will cheat the game of revenue as people end up not buying it.
Now, I’ve had multiple people in the last 24 hours use the “cheat” language on me, and I found it interesting. This implies that games—some games, anyway—are naturally entitled to a certain amount of sales because of their objective merits, and if they don’t reach that level of sales, then the system has somehow failed, or been broken.
This idea, as bizarre as it sounds to anyone with an actual understanding of the concept of a free market, matches perfectly with #gamergate’s outrage over the relative success of games like Gone Home. If every game is naturally entitled to a particular level of sales, then a game that does better than they think it should is also cheating.
If you think about this, you realize how profoundly #gamergate has bought into the idea that games are something that can be objectively rated, that “fun” is an quantifiable element of a game and not a qualitative experience people have playing it. I’ll come back to this in a bit when I tie this all together.
But let’s go back to the idea of a game being cheated out of money by a “politicized” review.
Let’s say there’s a game that I’m interested in. It looks fun. It’s, say, an action/fantasy rogue-like beat-em-up, in the vein of Torchlight or Diablo. That kind of thing is right up my alley.
Heck, let’s say it’s a game I do plan on buying: the new Gauntlet. What can I say? I’ve been gaming since the four player talking stand-up Gauntlet machines were the big innovation in gaming, and I’m a sucker for nostalgia. My nomme des tubes, Blue Author, is even based in a Gauntlet reference.
But let’s say—and this is not true, but I want to use an example of a game I otherwise definitely would buy—let’s say that right away the new Gauntlet game kicks off with something I would find deplorable, something I would not willingly pay money to experience. Let’s say they have an origin cut scene for every character, and three of the four characters get a scene of being awesome to introduce them, but Thyra the Valkyrie gets a degrading rape scene.
Now, I will totally pay money for an old-school style Gauntlet reboot with modern graphics and some modern gaming sensibilities. I will not pay money for a game where the male characters are pure escapist fantasy figures but the female character’s origin is a very-non-escapist tragedy.
#gamergate’s partisans would say this information has no place in a review because “it has nothing to do with the game.”
This is a very selective criteria, very subjective, though they act like it’s not. If the next Call of Duty game replaced enemy soldiers with penguins but the penguins were rendered in the same level of definition and detail that gamers objectively expected, you can bet reviewers would be talking about how weird and random and not at all suiting for the game or the experience they expected this creative choice was.
If a game that is meant to be serious and plot-heavy and dramatic failed because the writing for every character was terrible and unrealistic to the point that it seemed like a bad parody, like something an alien who had only heard about human nature by rough description would come up with, you can bet that this would be judged to be an objective fault worth mentioning in a review.
If a game is supposed to be set in modern New York but the buildings all look like something from rural Illinois, I bet #gamergate wouldn’t mind reviewers pointing out that this is a design problem.
But if the problem is that all the women are written unrealistically, or that the supposedly modern city setting doesn’t feature anybody but bland white men, mentioning these things is “political” and “subjective”. Supposedly.
Now, let’s jump back to my hypothetical version of Gauntlet. We have a game that I would totally buy on the merits. Even understanding it’s not a magnum opus by any stretch of the imagination, it’s Gauntlet. As long as it’s fun and playable, it gets my money. That’s all I demand from a game like Gauntlet; anything else is bonus.
But a rape-based origin story for the female character would be a dealbreaker.
As a consumer, don’t I deserve to know this?
#gamergate says no.
#gamergate says that if I would have bought the game without knowing anything about its content that would be a dealbreaker, then I owe it to the game to buy it. I owe the game’s developers my money. If I don’t buy it, then I am cheating them, and if I don’t buy it because a reviewer shared this information with me, then we are colluding against the game developer to skew the free market.
#gamergate says it is unethical for reviewers to tell me these things, that a review that contains this information on top of everything else they would expect a review to have is less informative than one that leaves it out, and that a review that helps me make the decision whether to buy a game or not is useless as a review because of that.
Does this sound like Orwellian doublespeak?
It sure does, and that’s not a coincidence.
People tend to throw “Orwellian” around whenever there’s shades of censorship, but there’s a key element to 1984 that is especially prominent in #gamergate. The repressive government in 1984 achieved the feat of staying in power past their revolution by making sure their revolution never ended, by making sure the war that had swept them into power was never lost but also never won.
They essentially hacked the revolutionary process—one that is inherently a cycle of change—to make sure the wheel got stuck forever with them in power.
Now, #gamergate likes to accuse other people of wanting a single lens for all reviews, even though that’s exactly what they want. (They call it “no lens”, but that’s obviously impossible.) I want it understood that I’m not demanding that every reviewer cater to my tastes.
In fact, I would rather have a plethora of reviews by reviewers with different tastes, all telling me what worked about the game for them and what didn’t, and why. Because then even if I disagree with an individual reviewer, I can make the most informed choice as a consumer.
But as a consumer of reviews, reviews that do take into account my tastes and my personal criteria are more valuable—more useful—than ones that don’t, because as a consumer of video games, this information is relevant to me.
And under a free market, if the patronage of people who share my tastes and concerns is enough to make reviews that cater to me profitable, such reviews will continue to happen.
And if the loss of sales caused by the fact that potential customers are turned away by the content in the game makes the game a failure, that, too, is the free market.
#gamergate can’t handle the idea that the free market might decide against their tastes, or even decide less overwhelmingly in favor of their tastes. So it attacks the free market, tries to restrict access to the market, and does so while claiming to be the champions of the free market.
Trying to cut reviews off from the influence of the free market by demanding they all follow a single set of tastes is the third prong of #gamergate’s attack
When I talk about this on Twitter, I get people under the #gamergate tag tweeting links about me trying to argue that their standards for what makes a game fun and worth their money are objective and not at all a matter of taste, and trying to get me to accept definitions of “review” and “criticism” that enshrine their tastes as objective and the only possible “ethical” basis for a review.
But this is nonsense.
It’s all nonsense.
And it’s nonsense designed for one end and one end only: to keep the playing field tilted. To make sure that the people who think of themselves as the purist expression of a hobby are catered to forever, no matter what the demographics of people who game looks like or what there’s actual demand for.
I said I would come back to the “objective” review standards that #gamergate agitates for. As I said, this is tied to their belief that every game has a natural amount of sales that it’s entitled to. Every game has a single objective rating, and any review that doesn’t arrive at least in the neighborhood of that rating is flawed in some way, either because the reviewer made a mistake, considered the “wrong” criteria, or is in active collusion with someone.
This mindset holds a lot of sway in the gaming industry. Long before there was #gamergate, there were “scandals” when much-anticipated AAA games came out with lower ratings than expected, or when similarly anticipated games received high ratings that concealed serious problems with playability. #gamergate likes to point to both of these historical problems as signs of the industry’s corruption, but in fact, they’re both part of the world that #gamergate is fighting for.
Because few criteria a game can be judged on really are objective. Even though graphics and sound specs can be reduced to objective technical terms (FPS, resolution, et cetera), the graphical design and the sound effects and music are content, artwork, things that must be judged on taste. While there are some control schemes that have obvious problems that will affect most people, even things like playability and fluidness of controls are subject to individual tastes.
And of course, “fun” is not something that can be quantified at all.
But the gamers who are now behind #gamergate insist that games be judged “objectively” on these criteria. And they harshly condemn any review that fails to be so “objective”.
In other words: they expect all reviews to exactly reflect their tastes, and are prepared to attack any review that does not.
When you say it like that, it sounds horrible.
No movement could survive long with that as its battle cry.
And so they tell you “ACTUALLY IT’S ABOUT ETHICS IN GAME JOURNALISM” while demanding that all games journalism be filtered through the lens of their viewpoint, as one prong of their plan to prop up a market tilted in their favor.
In the post-ethics world that #gamergate is fighting for, no video game review will actually judge the video game, it will judge whether or not the brain trust behind #gamergate will like it, and how much they will like it.
This effectively makes video game reviews almost useless to everybody else, but its more pernicious effect is to make it so that only games that #gamergate would play can be promoted, and thus only games that #gamergate would play will be made.
And if they get their way, they’ll tell everybody who tries to change things that the market decided.