A Conflict of Interest: #GamerGate and the Need for Ethics in Video Game Journalism
Like all hashtags, #GamerGate owes its beginnings to a single tweet. On August 27, 2014 at 6:22 PM, conservative actor and gamer Adam Baldwin tweeted links to two videos that detailed corruption within the video game industry, captioning them “#GamerGate”. What began as the rallying cry for gamers to demand higher ethical standards for video game journalists took on much greater — and more sinister — implications. Gamergate has since evolved into a massive online movement of gamer vs. media, in which gamers demand higher standards of ethics in video game coverage and the media portrays gamers as homogeneous misogynists who both resist change and harass those who incite it.
Despite Gamergaters’ focus on journalistic ethics, a Newsweek study revealed that a majority of Twitter activity surrounding #GamerGate involves the harassment of prominent women within gaming culture. This represents a very different kind of ethical problem, one that obscures the possibility of ever meeting a high ethical standard in journalism.
Zoe Quinn, Leigh Alexander, and Anita Sarkeesian are women gamers who know from experience what it means to be harassed both online and in person. Theirs are household names for gamers. They’re heroes to some and victims to all. The mistreatment they’ve suffered indicates a problem with misogyny in video games and the people that play them.
The common narrative of Gamergate in the liberal media is one of harassment and misogyny, not of journalistic ethics. Few outlets examine the related issues on ethics in video game journalism. The ongoing misrepresentation of the movement in the media only proves the point that video game journalists are in dire need of an education in ethics, because all sides of the story are not being shown. For an objective timeline of events relating to Gamergate, see below, or keep reading for a narrative summary of the movement:
It’s essential for journalists to verify everything, track down multiple sources to confirm information, and look at all sides to a story to get the complete picture. When they don’t, and they chose to portray a slanted angle to the story, it’s usually because of some underlying conflict of interest.
Has this happened with Gamergate?
Many gamergaters, like Jordan Owen and David Aurini, brandish the term Social Justice Warriors (Urban Dictionary: “A pejorative term for an individual who … engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet … for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation). According to them, SJW’s like Anita Sarkeesian attract negative attention for publicity and ultimately, profit, an argument that essentially claims she’s asking to be harassed. Some call this perspective chauvinistic; many more call it offensive. The misogynistic undertones here — and the overtones of harassment both digital and otherwise — to actually defend Gamergate has been reduced to a punchline and the movement itself given no respect. Why? The many contradictory explanations for the moment across the Internet speak to the incoherence of Gamergate. There’s quite a bit of enthusiasm with shockingly little restraint or eloquence. This leaderless movement is without direction or cohesive vision, but rest assured, their ethical concerns remain legitimate.
In 2012, Stephen Totilo of Kotaku, a prominent video game news website, wrote about the “Dorito-gate” fiasco (these people love their -gates!), during which GTTV host Geoff Keighley had done on-camera interviews with Halo 4, Doritos, and Mountain Dew promotional materials behind him. The negative outcry was obvious: why would a journalist so obviously promote not only a game, but two sponsoring brands as well? In Totilo’s article, he quotes Eurogamer columnist Robert “Rab” Florence as saying, “I think we’re in a horrible position right now, where most games coverage is almost indistinguishable from PR.” There’s no ethical or even professional training for video game journalists; their articles are often overenthusiastic, casual in tone, and biased.
In the video game industry, relationships between those in the press and those in PR are all too common. Both attend major conferences, events, and launches aimed at selling games and making money for it. The lines get blurred. Leigh Alexander, a video game journalist writing for Gamasutra, also runs a PR firm for game developers. Would that be permissible in any other media industry? What if a film critic also ran a consulting firm for film directors on how to best market their films? It would be a clear conflict of interest.
It’s also considered ethical for journalists to temper their personal opinions and monitor what they say over social media. Recently, while embroiled in a debate about video game journalism ethics, Alexander used her Twitter account to personally attack conservative actor and gamer Adam Baldwin, who is now known for naming #GamerGate.
Gamergaters speak out about individual ethics violations but also the larger conflicts of interest. Arguably the most glaring involves Game Informer, the only video games magazine with a strong distribution. With an annual circulation of 7,629,995, Game Informer ranks fourth of all magazines in the United States. It trails behind only two AARP publications and Costco Connection. This means that Game Informer’s circulation is higher even than Better Homes and Garden, a magazine with almost 100 years of readership.
On face value that’s surprising, but a Game Informer subscription is conveniently forced upon anyone with a membership to Gamestop, the largest and most well-known retailer of video games. Yet another clear conflict of interest. Game Informer represents a monopoly on printed video game journalism. Recent years have seen a dying out of other magazines as Game Informer absorbs greater portions of readership. The next most widely distributed isn’t even within the top 100 magazines in the US.
In October, Editor-In-Chief Andy McNamara had the following to say in an article about Gamergate:
“I am aware that many times during this controversy Game Informer’s ethics and standards were put in question due to our relationship with GameStop. We have been upfront with our relationship from the beginning and that GameStop has no say in our editorial decision-making process. My team and I have always worked to set the standard of truth and honesty when it comes to game reporting, and we will continue to hold ourselves to that lofty goal.”
However, in the November 2014 issue of Game Informer, McNamara admits to donating to a Kickstarter made to fund a game called Shadowrun Returns. His open letter to readers, entitled “Kickstart My Heart” discusses his “love-hate relationship” with crowdfunding services and grapples with the ethical dilemmas at play when donating to games while also managing a media source that covers games. But is it ever ethical for a journalist to donate to a Kickstarter for a product that he himself will one day review?
Bias lends itself to one-sided coverage. Anita Sarkeesian, a prominent victim of Gamergate, has been harassed out of her home at least three times because of her blog Feminist Frequency and related activism. In her blog, Sarkeesian criticizes gender representations in games from the perspective of a female gamer, but there’s often ignored evidence that she has never been much of a gamer and created her blog to incite a frenzy of publicity. This side of the story is often ignored.
The biggest bombshell for the Gamergate movement came on September 17 when Milo Yiannopoulos at Breitbart, a conservative British news and opinion website, exposed the existence of “GameJournoPros”, a Google Group proving collusion among prominent game journalists from significant gaming sites like Polygon and Kotaku. They use the group to “shape industry wide attitudes to events”, according to Yiannopoulos. A complete list of members can be seen here. Among other offenses exposed by Yiannopoulos is the discussion of bribery to provide positive coverage of products.
How and why are these breaches of journalism ethics overlooked so often in coverage of Gamergate?
These and a multitude of other ethical violations fall largely upon deaf ears when associated with the term Gamergate, because the movement itself was founded upon an act of Internet harassment. Even the media’s portrayal of Gamergate’s conception is conflicted.
How did a relatively obscure indie video game developer become — as she puts it in a Crack’d.com article — the Internet’s most hated person?
27-year-old Zoe Quinn released a text-based adventure game called Depression Quest in early August on Steam, an internet-based distribution channel and community for video games. (Think of YouTube for games but with downloads and an emphasis on community feedback.) Quinn attracted a lot of negative attention, with some gamers calling DQ a “non-game” and others being offended by the very subject matter.
A 22-year-old user that self-identified as depressed called the game “nothing short of insulting” by taking the “impossible weight” of depression and “reduc[ing] it to a rather whiney, irritating and self-absorbed narrative.” Reviews are officially “Mixed” on Steam, with only 55% being positive.
Almost immediately, Quinn was harassed online via social media for merely being a female game developer in a male-dominated industry, and even more so because of the unorthodox content of her game. That negative feedback was a prelude to what came on August 16, 2014. Quinn’s embittered ex-boyfriend Eron Djoni published The Zoe Post, a memoir-styled blog website that detailed their entire failed relationship, including allegations that she cheated on him with several men. One was her boss and another, video game journalist Nathan Grayson, a contributor for popular gaming website Kotaku.com.
The immediate outcry was that Zoe Quinn slept with Nathan Grayson to get positive reviews for Depression Quest. Here, finally, was a glaring example of a violation of ethics in game journalism, the tip of the spear that “hardcore gamers” were waiting for to launch a campaign for reform
The impending rage spiraled out of control, mainly over social media, and Gamergate evolved into the angry movement we have today. One of the most notable (and long-winded) tirades came from YouTuber MundaneMatt who published a 15-minute rant about Zoe Quinn the same day Djoni’s published his site.
Initially overlooked, The Zoe Post doesn’t ever implicate Quinn and Grayson in engaging in any direct violation of video game journalism ethics. The name “Grayson” appears in the post all of five times and only ever when Djoni is naming Grayson as one of several cuckolds.
The only time Grayson’s employer Kotaku is mentioned in the entire post?
“Friggen Nathan Stupid-Red-Pants-Wearing Kotaku-Writing Grayson.”
In an interview with Buzzfeed, this exemplar of eloquence even admitted: “I don’t, like, have a passion for games or anything.” The Zoe Post was never about ethics in video game journalism at all. Djoni’s website is romantic revenge in its purest and most public form.
Kotaku — and Grayson specifically — never gave Quinn’s game unfair coverage. In fact, Nathan Grayson never covered Depression Quest at all. The closest he came was mentioning Quinn and Depression Quest in a March 21 article about a failed indie game reality TV show.
By August 20, Kotaku editor Stephen Totilo (the same journalist who previously wrote about Dorito-gate) released a statement ensuring their readership that the allegations against Grayson’s journalistic integrity were false, but this release went largely unheard. The damage was done. The fires had been lit.
Almost simultaneously, Quinn announced that her Tumblr and Twitter accounts had been hacked and her personal information “doxxed”, a term for digital document tracing in which someone’s personal information is leaked and distributed for the purpose of harassment. According to Twitter activity and an interview with BBC, Quinn has been reduced to a nomad, sleeping on the couches of friends and drifting from interview to interview while screening harassing phone calls and dealing with consistent threats of bodily harm and rape.
True #GamerGate supporters demand transparency in an industry plagued by collusion and bias, but because of a belligerent and overwhelmingly misogynistic tone, the overarching narrative of the movement has been altered by the very media representatives that Gamergate accuses.
Vitriol is the buzz word used by many video game journalists to describe the tone of the average gamergater — one that might have been shared via GameJournoPros. Ongoing coverage focuses on the actions of the few and the term “Gamergate” is irrevocably attached to harassment. “Gamers” are all painted as just like Eron Djoni: angry, woman-hating, and repressed. Gaming-oriented media outlets shaped the narrative to their liking: “gamers” were not only demonized, but stereotyped as white, male nerds.
By August 26, gamer Andrew Todd from Badass Digest, said that identifying as a gamer was “like being a moderate Muslim in the middle of the continuing ISIS takeover and oppression of Iraq.” The popular opinion was to see the harassing action of a few criminals hiding deep within the bowels of the Internet as indicative of the larger movement.
Leigh Alexander, along with thirteen other journalists who published articles on the same day, wrote to express the claim that the era of gamers was over. In her article titled “’Gamers’ don’t have to be your audience. ‘Gamers’ are over.” Alexander — despite being a self-proclaimed journalist who writes for gamers — says:
‘Games culture’ is a petri dish of people who know so little about how human social interaction and professional life works that they can concoct online ‘wars’ about social justice or ‘game journalism ethics,’ straight-faced, and cause genuine human consequences. Because of video games.
Video game journalists, rather than grapple with potentially legitimate concerns about their ethical standards, instead chose to attack their readership. The running assumption is that the publishing of these articles was coordinated via GameJournoPros. Generalization, misdirection and manipulation of public opinion were the aim.
Gamers across Twitter continued to point this out, fighting back with a new hashtag #NotYourShield to highlight the diversity of gamers. As Gamergaters dug in their heels new research began popping up:
Quinn had been notorious for participating in a number of conflicts via Twitter before Depression Quest was even published. She’s averaged 37.9 posts daily since joining Twitter in 2010, having butted heads with the forum Wizardchan and The Fine Young Capitalists (TFYC) previously. According to statements from each, Zoe Quinn sought conflict directly and then made claims that they harassed her after the fact.
Whatever Quinn’s issues were with a forum for male virgins (Wizardchan) and a feminist game jam (TFYC), critics questioned her ultimate intentions in engaging in these conflicts. Wizardchan provided evidence that Quinn falsified information exposing them. Then there’s Quinn’s harassment of TFYC, which is well-documented and publicly available on Twitter. By end of August, TFYC and Quinn had supposedly reconciled their differences, but one of Quinn’s associates had doxxed the leadership of TFYC. Meanwhile, media outlets portrayed one side of an Internet war, painting Quinn as a victim, sites like Wizardchan and 4chan as the perpetrators, and ignoring TFYC altogether. Why?
Many game websites ignore TFYC because, as YouTube user LeoGamer says, “it goes against the narrative put forward.” Vice.com published an article deeply critical of TFYC, portraying the organization as another in a long succession of Quinn’s assailants.
Perhaps the most succinct summary of #GamerGate’s many moving parts came from YouTube user SyrianGirlpartisan. In her video, she said:
“The media is just trying to misdirect people to conceal their own corruption. What gamergate is really about is collusion and corruption amongst journalists and members of the indie game developing community, and an agenda by social justice warriors to use video games as a medium for social engineering.”
So when somebody asks you what #GamerGate is all about, don’t respond by laughing it off with a comical “It’s Actually About Ethics in Games Journalism” meme (which, in typical Internet subculture fashion, even has its own Tumblr now; The Mary Sue also published an entertaining list of highlights). Tell them that there’s legitimate concern surrounding ethics in video game journalism in an industry where the lines between journalism and PR are blurred. Be sure to clarify that these concerns are often lost in the cacophony of noise on social media and polluted by the aggravated harassment of women in and around the industry. So many are quick to condemn Gamergate because of the callous, largely unsupported actions of a few extremists, but we can, and should do more.