What We Talk About When We Talk About Videogames

Things Learned Giving The Videogame Industry And Its Fans Therapy For Two Years

Around this time in 2014, I was laying the foundation for what became Don’t Die. It’s an oral history originally created as a reaction to Gamergate to help humanize the videogame industry and its fans, to create a space where death and rape threats, gridlocked sanctimony, and smug dismissiveness would hopefully give way to empathy and understanding.

If you don’t give a shit about videogames — and who could blame you? — what I’m talking about here is not Kumbaya-conflict mediation-trust falls around some digital campfire, but instead building a platform whose sole purpose is restoring humanity to avatars. To let the ignored and threatened speak loudly, uninterrupted, and completely. To brush aside all the brittle reasons all gatekeepers wield as reasons to shut skepticism down. Internet cliques and loud personalities within them like to behave as though their experiences are universal, and will do anything to defend their interpretation of the status quo. If you pay attention to the things not being said, though, a different and far more nuanced narrative will emerge.

Although Don’t Die is seemingly about videogames, it’s really about consumer culture, oppression in creative industries, greed, the death of journalism, the “death of journalism,” and the things that make our time online so suffocating.

Mainly, I just wanted to listen. I was disgusted by people using moral outrage on “both” sides of Gamergate as an opportunity for rage profiteering. I was amazed at the cowardice on display from videogame companies who said and did nothing. I was angry at indecisive pitch email threads with timid editors — including many who are continually praised on social media for being unrivaled in their progressive thinking — who lacked the foresight and curiosity about how a cultural force seemingly so massive still lacked basic mainstream scrutiny. I was tired of waiting for permission. I wanted to understand and hear how other people wound up feeling similarly frustrated by a space that supposedly values community, fun, and creative expression.

The conversations have nothing to do with videogames other than how they’re used to justify people’s actions and words. That lens has since extended to people outside the ecosystem of videogames to include people in other industries to examine parallels that aren’t being considered elsewhere.

What does it matter whether you know what year Secret of Mana came out if you can’t deny that it was created by human beings who haven’t ever been listened to? Weird as it may sound, there’s a lot to learn from them and the people who talk about them. Decades and decades of willful blindness have preserved both the videogame industry and its toxic culture’s ability to remain stuck in the past, and yet even from the margins still have undue influence on our present and future. Just as science is starting to come around to harnessing viruses for their potential to advance science and save lives, there’s an opportunity with videogames for all of us — to help them assimilate into the present day and, simultaneously, to understand ourselves better by being open to something different.

People spend a lot of time playing and paying attention to videogames today. And yet, videogames are still invisible in cultural consideration, accountability, and ambition in ways movies, TV, and film aren’t. Why? The Panama Papers, Wikileaks, and even the Sony Pictures hack grabbed headlines and influenced national and global affairs with unprecedented insights into how our world really works in recent years. But “journalists” who cover videogames are in reality essayists more fascinated with symbolism in software and being complimented on social media than bringing to light the grievances of an oppressed global workforce and similarly rocking people’s perceptions. Why?

These were just two of countless other things I was wondering about videogames. So, with no existing outlet or anywhere interested in empowering my reporting (as true today as it was when I started, and all the more crazy-making given my recently winning an award for journalism), I bought a domain and opened up my email inbox — and a whole lot of my schedule — to having one-on-one phone conversations with people who felt similarly voiceless or had no path into the broader conversations taking place about videogames online. What isn’t being discussed that should? What patterns over the last few decades do you notice in what the media does and doesn’t cover? How does it all seem “stuck”? What’s weird about the intersection of videogames and the internet? What I was hearing was not at all like what I’d read or seen online anywhere else. It was honest. Interesting. Real.

Don’t Die is not about crafting a narrative I already had in mind. I’m interested solely in exploring the unexplored and letting people decide for themselves, myself included. I’m still figuring it out.

Gamergate in itself is not interesting. (If you don’t follow videogames at all and want to understand its intentionally confusing wrinkles, this episode of the Reply All podcast does an excellent job.) It’s another strain of what we nebulously call “toxic internet culture,” which is to say it’s nothing new. But in the way the internet plays tricks on us daily — much like how 2014 today seems so, so long ago — what I didn’t see written online at the time was that Gamergate was an opportunity, because there finally was a label for this uncomfortable and omnipresent thing in the air not being dealt with or named.

There are a great deal of other things still not being named, and an open dialog is one of the first important steps towards meaningful change.

In the last two years, I have talked to more than 200 people for Don’t Die. I have talked to people who have burnt out on playing videogames, gotten frustrated over the lack of solidarity over workforce abuses, feel existential dread as industry creative directors and executives, over steadily rising budgets, have walked away as freelance or salaried critics and journalists due to sagging pay, and — you name it. Rappers. Teenagers in Nigeria. Recent college grads in Sweden. Lifelong industry music composers in Tokyo. Department of Defense consultants. YA authors. Teenagers. TV writers. Sports bloggers. Retired PR reps. People in government who have written their theses on soap operas. Historians of the novel. Service-industry activists. There is no need for another website posting enthused perspectives from bullish analysts and apologist consumers reminding people of reasons to be optimistic about “the state of videogames” in a vacuum.

While people often speak to me of disaffection and dissatisfaction with the industry and culture, it is not what I’m asking people to discuss in advance. On Twitter, people often accuse me of being “negative” when I describe verbatim what I’m hearing. These perspectives I’ve gathered are so rarely part of the oxygen in this space that many are in denial about the possibility that the realities are less sunny than what they experience. What does that say about the rest of the internet, and our species in general?

A political cartoonist I interviewed told me the difference between people arguing about videogames and politics online is people who argue about politics typically don’t proceed to dox those they disagree with afterwards. Whether you agree with that or not, videogames are frequently a hair-trigger, “launch-on-warning” atmosphere, where a massive and overwhelming retaliatory strike can empty a rhetorical arsenal and be launched by someone whose only point of entry was reading about an entertainment product online.

The metaphor doesn’t quite hold together in reality, but in broad strokes: Think of a NATO mentality of “an attack against one is an attack against all,” where the act of provocation is merely reading a dissenting or critical opinion. There are enough threads on Reddit about me and my work alone to demonstrate the almost boring “normalcy” of this type of response, when all I’m doing is asking questions.

People often ask me if Don’t Die is “accomplishing its goals.” It’s a framing I struggle to connect as relating even remotely to the endeavor. All I’ve ever wanted to do was to listen and understand our world a little better. Don’t Die is not a results-oriented undertaking, except as a way to provide a resource for understanding. The point of doing it is to do it.

The second thing people always ask me is what I’m learning by doing Don’t Die. I feel like that’s a request to blindly nail gunning nuances into headlines, but understand the impulse to ask and don’t deny that I’m learning something.

I share this and the subsequent essays not to plant any sort of flag or impart finality, but instead to share what I’ve found myself thinking and learning so far, if only so I can refer back when asked again: “What have you learned doing this?”

Listen long enough and you’ll inevitably have something to say.

## The videogame industry is afraid of and doesn’t trust its own audience.

If you’re interested in videogames enough to want to learn more about them, what you’ll quickly find is a lot of information about even basic creative decisions are absurdly gated in the industry. For example, while companies like Ubisoft are proud to unveil new trailers and screenshots from the latest Assassin’s Creed, it’s still a mystery why that company created and conceived of that series in the first place. If you’re a journalist or tech writer visiting a major studio like that and ask a question the PR team doesn’t have an answer prepared for, even though you’re sure you were on Earth, it feels like you opened your mouth to cast a magic spell transporting you to another dimension where logic doesn’t exist.

I’ve spoken elsewhere about an experience I had visiting a studio in Burbank, where another writer asked if there would be a day-night cycle in an upcoming title. The PR person guiding us around extended her arm and said with a smile, “We’re not answering that question.” Later in that same visit, I asked a basic follow-up question to the writer of this game. He said the game was a satire, and when I asked him of what, he said he didn’t know.

You don’t have to be allowed ostensibly behind the curtain to sense this bizarre tension. My favorite example of this opacity was on full display in 2010’s Super Mario All-Stars Limited Edition. Intended to pay tribute to the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., the accompanying booklet claiming to offer new insights into the history of this monumental series consisted solely of interviews with Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto and other Nintendo higher-ups that were whipsawed into vague one-liners per topic. Art and schematic drawings for the original game are obscured by other pictures, and nothing in Japanese is translated into English. There was also a CD with one- to four-second tracks of sound effects like Mario getting a coin. Happy anniversary.

I’ve spoken to many life-long industry developers who have influenced the current generation of people trying to make their names today making games. The old guard says this lack of information is simple: Game developers aren’t sexy, and videogames aren’t mainstream in the way other mediums are. In other words, there’s an assumption from the game industry that information that isn’t in service of selling a product isn’t interesting. (Frequently, beta builds, marketing materials, and concept art are even thrown out after a project has been completed.) More importantly, there’s a fear that anything off-message can be interpreted the wrong way, taken out of context, or used as license for media outlets or consumers to harass individuals at game companies.

Or, as an anonymous employee involved in some of the biggest game series on shelves today told me in 2015: “Our critics often behave like jackals and our audience often seems comprised mostly of thugs.”

People who don’t pay particularly close attention online to videogames likely won’t be shocked by this characterization, though it’s further corroborated by plenty of people who work outside the confines of the industry. Luke Crane, the head of games for Kickstarter, says the level of vitriol commonly on display among portions of the videogame audience “rarely” is matched by that for proposed books, movies, or music projects seeking funding. I often feel like following this point any further is like advocating for phrenology, so let’s avoid brainpan-derived conclusions and instead tightly piggyback off Crane’s assertion that something is different about the way passion and expectations for videogames are communicated online.

This is not news to the industry, which has adopted a firm ostriching reaction strategy since the beginning. The Library of Congress’ processing technician Dave Gibson told me many game companies are so on guard about controlling their message that they have refused to donate materials, viewing the LOC as a competing merchant that could start selling games. Via email, Gibson told me he felt like the game industry doesn’t view its output as culture.

Tomm Hulett, a producer on the popular horror game series Silent Hill, told me bluntly and poignantly that all he learned working on those games is “that the internet’s mean.” Hulett, a self-described Silent Hill superfan before he started working on it, got blamed for “ruining” the series, essentially, only because the audience writ large for videogames has no context or meaningful understanding of how games are made.

In Tomm’s case, after being hired on as an associate producer for 2008’s Silent Hill: Homecoming, he offered to be a public face for the project. As a fan of the series, he insisted that publisher Konami shouldn’t opt to do as many game companies do, and have a PR agency not directly involved in the development field all press and interview inquiries. What wasn’t telegraphed to the audience, though, was the massive staff and budget changes that happened both before and after he got hired. Tomm told me:

“I got more and more clout internally. And then certain things didn’t work anyway, and other things got moved around. So by the end of it, the original producer was gone, a lot of the staff at the developer had switched over. So almost none of us were the same people that started this project, but the budget was reaching its end, we had a release date we had to hit. We had so many assets that existed we had to use. So we kinda made the best of it, but then the game comes out. I’m the Konami guy on it. I’m at Leipzig, showing it off… It couldn’t be fixed. Games are made by hundreds of people, so one guy can only do so much. You can’t blame a game on one person, you can’t credit a game to just one person.”

Another former Konami employee told me the only recognition people who work on videogames get is to be made “the unfortunate face of something.”

There are many reasons for this. I’ve theorized it has something to do with the Japanese origins of the industry, which created an era where end-game credits listed employees under indecipherable pseudonyms in an effort to prevent poaching. An infamous example of the U.S. bucking this tradition from the Atari era was Warren Robinett who, shortly before quitting, finished work on 1980’s Adventure by including one of the earliest videogame “Easter eggs”: a secret screen giving himself credit for all the work he did as the sole creator of the game.

The only language the videogame industry speaks and understands is money. The industry does not swoop in to correct inaccurate perceptions, publicly defend employees that the internet gets the pitchforks and torches out for or, in the case of Gamergate, get involved even at the minimal level of suggesting maybe it’s wrong to threaten to kill and rape each other in the name of the products they put on shelves.

As Gamergate was still gathering steam in 2014, people who were working at the time on titles like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty told me the vibe in their offices was work was “not the place to talk about it.” David Weinberger, one of the corporate activists and co-authors behind the Cluetrain Manifesto, a book of edicts for how all companies are responsible for the conversations taking place about them and their products, called this attitude “shortsighted and cowardly.”

The thing about a reputation is you tend to deserve it, especially when you’ve spent decades building it. While the cowardice Weinberger described to me stems largely from a fear of losing money, what’s worth mentioning is that decades ago videogames used to feel comparatively like a much more open field with more possibilities. In 1997, Purple Moon’s “friendship adventure” Rockett’s New School aimed at girls outsold Madden NFL. Brenda Laurel, formerly of Purple Moon, told me about the meetings she was in during the ’90s where game companies laid out their plan to basically ignore girls as a potential audience for videogames.

She told me:

“I think these guys who are thinking about those dollars are still not noticing that there’s an $80 billion business with an empty lot next door. It doesn’t occur to them. They don’t think women will ever be much of an audience.”

Look where it got us.

Videogames have historically been and will always be a haven for weirdos and the marginalized. This is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s as true in 2017 as it was in 1977, but what the industry is in denial about is the fact that there’s still the impression among the general public that the primary audience is douchey teens and that videogames are only for kids. No amount of ads with grown men shouting into headsets is going to change that, but there’s a ring of truth to those spots, too.

When dealing with videogames’ core audience, the industry must feel that delicate personalities need to be dealt with using kid gloves. The adults in the room are scared of upsetting their customers, so while they likely know what ought to be done, there’s no way they’ll do it for fear of alienating their entire customer base. This is why a videogames PR person knows not to let a writer say that night may follow day in a videogame, and it is also why they dared not to interfere or say anything in 2014 when its customers were threatening to bomb a plane a Sony executive was on or — take your pick. It used to be that the links between violence and videogames were laughably inaccurate; now they’re just hard to believe they persist and are real in this way. It’s no wonder the industry is afraid.

Whether the industry can catalyze that fear into meaningful change remains to be seen. We should remember that real solutions are slow and quiet. They don’t make for great clickbait. We should also own up to the fact that a lot of people who express themselves online are really only interested in staying angry, and angering others.

Whether things are “improving” is difficult to quantify and trace, because the binary of worse-better reduces progress to being linear. In many ways, the industry and culture are moving forward. It’s hard to say towards what. While conversations like the ones I collect for Don’t Die are unprecedented in happening out in the open and couldn’t have happened three years ago, a lot has been lost getting here. We’re still losing.

It’s also unfair to imply that industries are monoliths. There are different motivations and heartbeats for all subcultures and people at the points of entry in anything, and this includes videogames. I can’t answer for others, but I do know fear can’t be dealt with until you face it.

David Wolinsky is the creator and moderator of Don’t Die, an oral history intended to paint the videogame culture and industry around it onto a broader canvas. Support his Patreon and follow him on Twitter @davidwolinsky.