It’s easy to mock video gamers as dorky loners in yellowing underpants. Indeed, in previous columns, I’ve done it myself. Occasionally at length. But, the more you learn about the latest scandal in the games industry, the more you start to sympathise with the frustrated male stereotype. Because an army of sociopathic feminist programmers and campaigners, abetted by achingly politically correct American tech bloggers, are terrorising the entire community – lying, bullying and manipulating their way around the internet for profit and attention.
It’s a fact of life that the video games industry is awash with marginalised, troubled people who have found it difficult to manage their lives in mainstream society. It’s particularly the case when you look at independent or “indie” video game developers, a remarkable proportion of whom suffer from depression or anxiety disorders. Many of these people end up as enthusiastic campaigners for one or more causes they feel deserve wider attention.
The journalists who cover games and gamers are subject to similar peculiarities and challenges, which perhaps explains widespread frustration from players that every blog out there seems more concerned with policing misogyny and “transphobia” than reviewing the latest game releases. As a result, gaming sites and their readers have drifted apart in recent years. Journalists have sided with activists to pen soporific op-eds about the need for “equality” in video games, while the people who actually play games just want to know if the latest instalment is good value for money.
Meanwhile, there have been grumbles that journalists are getting too close to their subjects, and that they speak ever more insultingly about their bread and butter customers – that is, their predominantly male readers – the longer they spend in the company of feminist activists and other agitators.
You might think it cruel to delve too deeply into the private lives of damaged people. But when, say, a video game developer and activist with a history of outrageous dishonesty, whose games aren’t up to much but nonetheless always seem to get glowing reviews, gets accused of exchanging sex for positive coverage and other benefits, the public interest is overwhelmingly clear.
Lying and cheating
Step forward Chelsea Van Valkenburg, who goes by the pen name Zoe Quinn. Quinn recently released an online novel called Depression Quest, described as an “interactive fiction game where you play as someone living with depression.” It’s an internet version of one of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books – except boring, and as excruciatingly badly written as its promotional material suggests.
You can play it here, if you’re feeling masochistic. It’s barely a game at all, really, more of a hyperlinked Tumblr blog. Anyone could have made it, as this cruelly worded but factually sound run-down of the current controversy around Quinn points out. Quinn started furiously marketing her game just after Robin Williams died. Tasteless and opportunistic, sure, but many gave her the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps she was just trying to “raise awareness.” But what later came out, thanks to a startling series of confessions from Quinn’s ex-boyfriend, is just what an unpleasant and manipulative human being she is.
It’s hard to believe some of the allegations made about Quinn, who has been held up as an icon of probity by the liberal tech press, but web sleuths have provided copious evidence in support of their claims. Though she presents herself as a champion for depression sufferers, Quinn picked on a forum for depressed men called Wizardchan, misrepresenting content there to claim she was being harassed. She used her influence to torpedo a charity – a charity! – which was later hacked by one of her supporters.
She is alleged to have used spurious copyright claims to stifle criticism. She threatened to end the careers of developers who disagreed with her in comment threads. She leveraged friendships with moderators at online forums to have nearly 25,000 comments deleted. She swept an allegation of sexual misconduct under the carpet using intimidation. There’s even a theory floating around that she is planning to have herself beaten up at an upcoming conference. It’s an unconfirmed internet rumour, but it illustrates Quinn’s credibility to gamers.
Quinn is not alone. There is a platoon of irritants in the media whose talents are vanishingly slight, but who generate column inches by the thousand for victimising innocents and manipulating their way around an over-sensitive industry. Some of them, such as Anita Sarkeesian, have no discernible higher purpose in life, except to bother innocent games developers.
These women purposefully court – and then exploit – boisterous, unpleasant reactions from astonished male gamers and use them to attract attention to themselves. What’s remarkable is how deeply unpleasant the skeletons lurking in their own closets often are, how completely those skeletons give the lie to their public image, and how uncritically their claims are repackaged by credulous games journalists.
Death threat hysteria
Let’s be honest. We’re all used to feeling a niggling suspicion that “death threats” sent to female agitators aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. And indeed there is no evidence that any violent threat against a prominent female figure in the media or technology industry has ever been credible – that is to say, that any feminist campaigner on the receiving end of internet trolling has ever been in any real danger. Even in the most famous American case, that of Kathy Sierra, there is no evidence the target was ever at risk.
But that doesn’t stop women like Quinn from using these admittedly feverish tweets and emails from angry men to change the subject (usually from their own shortcomings and misdeeds) and play the victim with the help of limp-wristed journalists. Tweets tagged #GamerGate, from video gamers frustrated by the antics of women like Quinn and the journalists who ignore her sins, have been skyrocketing in the past few days.
They’re ungallant, obviously, but death threats are sent by bored, lonely people – or simply out of casual malice. What’s even more pathetic than taking to the internet to work off your anger, though, is using death threats to get sympathy, or to vindictively pursue your ideological opponents and see their lives destroyed with jail sentences.
Showing off injudicious responses from bewildered men has become something like a badge of honour for a certain generation of feminist campaigner, which gives you some indication of how seriously they take the implied threats. (That is: not in the least.) It’s a sort of online Olympics, where women strut and peacock and compete to show off the most explicitly-worded and imaginative hate mail they’ve received.
Often, they call law enforcement agencies, try to get perpetrators banged up, and even tweet about how they’ve been “forced out of their homes.” Broadcasting information about your whereabouts on social media is an odd strategy for a person who claims to be in fear for their life. The police tend to advise against it. But even drawing attention to that fact is enough to get you slandered on the internet these days, and branded a hateful bully.
The phenomenon’s not unique to the video game industry, of course: back in British politics, it reaches a monstrous zenith with professional troll Caroline Criado-Perez. The jealousy from her fangirls, such as the New Statesman‘s Helen Lewis, is almost palpable. “How come CCP gets all the love?” you can almost hear them saying.
Death threat hysteria, whipped up by campaigners who are “offended by design,” is a cancer in the public square. It is designed to stifle debate and silence critics. Conversations are hijacked. Police time is wasted. Serious journalism becomes impossible. So why are so many American video game journalists allowing themselves to be taken in by it? The answer is ugly and sinister: because they get themselves laid if they toe the party line.
The economics of the indie gaming world are intriguing. Far from the multimillion dollar turnover of so-called “AAA” developers, most amateur writers and programmers are flat broke – mostly because many of their games simply aren’t very good. Many of the loudest voices seem to exist on handouts from the public. Even some mainstream gaming journalists can be seen begging for money online, which may explain their sympathy for women like Quinn, who regularly put out pleas for cash, alongside dubious claims about “muggings.”
Writers such as Nathan Grayson – with whom, along with at least four other men, Zoe Quinn cheated on her boyfriend for calculated professional advancement – know that they will be rewarded with sexual favours for promoting substandard work by some female developers. Grayson wrote about Quinn a few days before he admitted to starting a sexual relationship with her. His editor, on learning this, said no disciplinary action was necessary or would be forthcoming.
And it’s not just allegations of sex-for-coverage that’s dogging video games: many of the same journalists who write about sexually liberated gals like Quinn even pay her money, publicly donating cash to keep her afloat while turning a blind eye to her vindictiveness and mendacity. Not for any specific purpose, you understand: just to exist. The chutzpah it takes for them to ignore each other’s, and their own, conflicts of interest is astonishing. It has not gone unnoticed by their readers, who have been publishing exposés of their own in the last two weeks, demonstrating more investigative flair than any supposed reporter I have encountered in the video game industry.
Some websites, such as Polygon, owned by Vox Media, don’t care that their journalists financially support the same people they write about. (They do now ask for disclosures, though, in an apparent admission that there was a problem before.) Another website, Kotaku, part of Gawker Media, will not allow the donations to continue.
The mainstream gaming journalist linked to above, by the way, is Leigh Alexander, who writes for VICE, Gamasutra and the Guardian, among others, on video games. Alexander also runs a public relations consulting firm selling services to – you guessed it – game developers. The brazenness of it all is mind-blowing. She called a celebrity who mocked the uptight self-righteousness of gaming journalists “a washed-up crackhead.”
So corrupt, unethical and unprofessional are these gaming sites, they make tech startup blogs look like the Wall Street Journal. The manner in which the liberal tech establishment has closed ranks on the issue in defiance of their readers is remarkable, and unprecedented in the decade I have been a journalist. It’s fifty per cent political instincts, and fifty per cent the knowledge that they and their mates are up to their necks in it.
The penalties for dissenters, even other media outlets, can be severe. TechRaptor, one of the few gaming and technology sites that has posted positive coverage of #GamerGate, had its official account banned on reddit. reddit is a major traffic source for any technology outlet.
A fatal mistake
Instead of addressing allegations of corruption, examining their own prejudices and giving consideration to an industry-wide failure to provide any kind of acceptable service, the games press rounded on its own readers, accusing them of bigotry and misogyny and refusing to acknowledge that the community was sick of being lectured to and guilt-tripped on a daily basis by hypocrites and liars.
Watching the fallout on blogs, in forums and on Twitter, it’s tough to understate the extent of the shockwaves from all this, or the rift that has opened up between writers and readers as a result of Left-wing journalists reflexively defending their ideological allies. Gamers have uncovered evidence of such widespread corruption and conflicts of interest that the gaming blogs may never recover from it. The response from reporters – for the most part, denial and dismissal – is akin to mass professional suicide.
While the entire gaming journalism establishment is speaking in one voice, mocking dissenters and tweeting that all men should be killed, readers and those outside the world of video games are scratching their heads, wondering how so many bright people found themselves selling their souls for sex, a few quid in their PayPal accounts, and a warm feeling of standing up to “misogyny.”
There’s a lesson here for would-be social justice warriors: bang on about equality, respect and ethics all you like. But don’t expect to be treated as an oracle when your personal behaviour is utterly reprehensible. The internet being what it is, Depression Quest has already spawned a hilarious parody, which is perhaps the real moral of the story here. Although one substandard generation of journalists has been replaced in the internet era by another, with the advent of the internet, anyone can fight back at injustice in their own, uniquely, cruelly, hysterically funny fashion.
The enduring effect of #GamerGate is obvious: the gaming media has destroyed its reputation and its relationship with readers, who will never again trust it on any issue beyond which power-up is most likely to get you past level 17. By blaming its readers and burying its head in the sand, the politicised bloggers who previously influenced the opinions of millions have voluntarily given up their authority to rabid, single-issue campaigners who silence criticism and sleep with journalists, peers and even their own bosses, as Zoe Quinn did, to get ahead.
This is a subject I’ll return to in a later column: a brief history of corruption in video game journalism needs to be written. In the meantime, those of us with some critical distance from the chaos can only sit back and marvel at how wide-ranging and fundamental the damage to the indie games industry has been these last two weeks. There are now two, bitterly opposed factions in the industry. Journalists and activists, who care more about gender politics than the video games they are supposed to be reporting on, and gamers, mocked, derided and bullied… but unbowed.
Video gamers, and video game culture, will never be the same again.