The gaming press wants gamers to believe that the Zoe Quinn story is about her sex life and misogyny in the gaming community, but in reality they are trying to shield themselves from accusations of journalistic impropriety that they don’t want to address.
Zoe Quinn’s sex life is not the story here. While the accusation that Quinn’s relationship with Kotaku writer Nathan Grayson may have started this discussion about journalistic ethics and transparency, the fact is that Nathan Grayson never reviewed Quinn’s game, Depression Quest, or wrote about it again after beginning a sexual relationship with her. Had the gaming press left it at that, this story may have gone away, like so many other times in the past when readers have accused those they rely on to report on the gaming industry of being unduly influenced by the publishers and developers they are supposed to cover.
But they didn’t leave it alone, because the Zoe Quinn story raised questions that made the gaming press very, very uncomfortable, questions they did not want to acknowledge. So to try to keep the story from being about themselves, gaming journalists tried to make the story about their readers. They pushed back, and they pushed angrily and clumsily and ended up fanning long-simmering flames of resentment by attacking their readership. Instead of addressing concerns about the relationships between journalists and the people and projects they are trusted to write objectively about, they framed the story as being about misogynists who wanted to slut-shame female developers out of the industry.
Accusations of impropriety against game journalists are nothing new. In 2007, Jeff Gerstmann was fired by GameSpot after publishing a negative review of Eidos Interactive’s Kane and Lynch, a game that was heavily advertised by the publisher on the site. GameSpot claimed Gerstmann’s firing was not a consequence of his review, but in 2012 Gerstmann claimed that he was dismissed as a result of not only his Kane and Lynch review but other reviews whose scores had led to publishers pulling ad money from his employer.
In 2010, GamePro detailed the inner workings of controversial “review events,” in which publishers pay for travel and accommodations for journalists to trek to several day-long events in which they are allowed to play the latest big release in franchises like Call of Duty in carefully controlled environments. In addition to free travel and lavish hospitality, reviewers are often plied with expensive gifts. “[L]et’s be very clear: these events are designed to wow and impress the reviewer. It’s not a matter of fighting piracy, because the game had already been leaked. It’s not a matter of just controlling the setting, because that can be done without putting a reviewer up in a country club for three nights. Publishers like Activision spend the money in order to squeeze out the best reviews possible, and to send an implicit message: take care of us, and we’ll continue to take care of you,” Ben Kuchera wrote at Ars Technica at the time. “It’s a tough choice: stick by your ethics policy, or accept a free vacation, some gifts, and boost your site’s traffic.”
Is it likely that publishers directly pay for positive coverage and reviews? No. These are multiple-million dollar corporations operating on a global scale. They are too smart to engage in such blatant manipulation as to assign a monetary value for Game X to fall within a score of Y and Z. It’s the soft corruption, the promise of access and exclusivity, the suggestion of “take care of us, and we’ll take care of you” that has compromised the gaming community’s view of the gaming press over the years. The Zoe Quinn scandal reignited the debate about the legitimacy of gaming journalism while raising new questions about the interpersonal relationships between writers and the people within the industry that they cover.
Since the initial fervor in response to the details of Zoe Quinn’s sexual relationship with Nathan Grayson, a writer for Kotaku, and the media blackout of the entire story, gamers began digging into the relationships between reporters, public relations firms, developers, and publishers. There are a number of examples of seeming conflicts of interest to cite, such as Patricia Hernandez of Kotaku reviewing games created by Anna Anthropy, a friend and reportedly a former roommate, and Ben Kuchera, now at Polygon, writing about harassment of Zoe Quinn without disclosing he contributed money to her and her projects through Patreon. Both Kotaku and Polygon have since changed their policies to either ban writers from contributing to projects they write about or publicly disclose which games they have financially supported, although judging by Kuchera’s Twitter feed, he didn’t seem to take the accusations of a conflict of interest very seriously:
Patreon is an investment in the same way a Game Informer subscription gives you an emotional stake in GameStop.
— Ben Kuchera (@BenKuchera) August 27, 2014
I dunno. I’m not going to stop supporting work I care about on Patreon. If you dislike me for it? Fair enough.
— Ben Kuchera (@BenKuchera) August 27, 2014
One of the more damaging entanglements appears to be the interpersonal relationships between Zoe Quinn, Maya Kramer of Silverstring Media, and Brandon Boyer, the chairman of the Independent Games Festival (IGF). The problem is that Silverstring Media is involved with a number of games judged and promoted by the IGF, of which Boyer is one of the principle judges. Adding to the controversy is the relationship between Kramer and her employer and a number of gaming outlets, such as Kotaku; on June 3, 2014 Silverstring Media promoted an article by Nathan Grayson of Kotaku claiming that the game Glitchhikers saved him from driving drunk and potentially killing himself or someone else. Glitchhikers just happens to be the very first game listed under the “Projects” section on Silverstring Media’s website.
Silverstring Media has since updated their site to claim they are not a public relations firm, despite Kramer claiming on her Patreon site that she does “PR and production” for independent game developers.
The gaming press’s response to these latest accusations of ethical violations ranged from patronizing to dismissive to openly mocking, but they all pushed the same message: this isn’t about us, it’s about you, the readers, and your terrible bigotry. Leigh Alexander wrote at Gamasutra: “These obtuse shitslingers, these wailing hyper-consumers, these childish internet-arguers — they are not my audience… there is no ‘debate’ to be had.” At Polygon, Editor-at-Large Chris Plante created a false dichotomy: the side that has “folded its arms, slumped its shoulders while pouting like an obstinate child,” and the side that has “opened its arms, unable to contain its love and compassion, because they understand they are no longer alone.” Guess which side is the one Plante and other gaming journalists are supposed to represent?
Luke Plunkett of Kotaku played the aggrieved innocent bystander card, bemoaning: “There has been so much hate. So many angry words, so many accusations, over…what? Video games? Women in video games? People who write about video games?”
In an article patronizingly titled “Why I Feel Bad For – And Understand – The Angry #GamerGate Gamers,” Devin Faraci at least had the nerve to accuse readers of what all of these other writers cravenly insinuated: that the only issue here is that gamers are a bunch of fat, ugly social rejects who just want to beat up Zoe Quinn because they’re mad that women won’t sleep with them.
“For male geeks there’s a disconnect with what they’re told – be a nice guy and you’ll get the girl – and what they see in action around them. They get told lies that I think are really insidious, like ‘It doesn’t matter what’s on your outside, it matters what’s on your inside,’ which lead to entire affinity groups that dress and smell like shit and don’t take care of themselves,” he wrote. “This leads to a horrible cycle where socially awkward weirdos who dress like garbage get rejected by attractive women, which cause the socially awkward weirdos to start blaming women in general for their problems and reinforce their social awkwardness.” According to Faraci, “It all comes down, again and again, to the same problem: lonely boys who have no social skills who are wallowing in self-pity.”
These writers’ opinions of their readers’ social, sexual, and hygienic prowess has nothing to do with the issue at hand, but it’s a good play on their part; their insults will produce a fresh wave of vitriol from the reactionary members of the community that can be trotted out and used to paint their critics as hateful bigots. They know that’s exactly the response using terms like “shitslingers,” “devils,” and “hatemonger” will elicit. While their readers are busy defending themselves against such accusations, what they’re not doing is pressing these writers about the issues of journalistic integrity and transparency. And that’s the whole point.
However, the problem for game journalists is that this pushback was too coordinated and too obvious, and readers who no longer rely on one or two gaming sites for all of their exposure to gaming news quickly identified this unified front. Discussions about the Zoe Quinn story were initially censored and memory holed, as Breitbart News’ Milo Yiannopoulos covered. When that didn’t stop the story but only inflamed it, the gaming press pushed back in force to accuse “gamers” of misogyny, bigotry, and bullying, turning a term for their own audience into a dirty word. They were desperate to make the Zoe Quinn story simply about one woman’s sexual proclivities and place in the gaming industry, anything to distract from questions about journalists’ relationships with developers and publishers and how that might impact their reporting.
The problem for the gaming press is that the majority of those following GamerGate aren’t buying what they’re selling. This story is no longer about Zoe Quinn. The principle people still trying to bring her and her sexual affairs into this discussion are the gaming press; they are desperate to make GamerGate about anyone but themselves, and they are the ones who keep dragging Zoe Quinn’s sexual escapades into the forefront of the discussion to save themselves. By all means, let’s have a discussion about sexism, about women in the gaming industry, about expanding the themes and audience for games; we can and should discuss these issues to continue to grow this community and this industry, but understand that right now, in this moment, they are not the issues that are fueling GamerGate. These serious subjects are being used as a dodge, a shield to dismiss legitimate and pressing concerns and a wedge to divide the gaming community, and it cheapens what should be important and legitimate topics. The question of journalistic ethics and the influence of personal relationships on what is supposed to be impartial reporting needs to be answered.
Gamers are not “over,” they’re not going away, and they’re not the problem.