One question supporters of GamerGate, the consumer revolt against shoddy ethics and bias in video games journalism, often ask me is what a successful campaign outcome might look like. Based on my experience in online media, here’s where I think video games journalism is headed. In other words: what GamerGate will ultimately achieve.
Now, this is a purely speculative list of predictions. But, as someone who has built and sold a media company and who has followed GamerGate for quite some time, I think I’m as well placed as anyone to gaze into my crystal ball and say what I see. And I think at least some of them are pretty much dead certs, because I see what’s happening in gaming as very similar to another industry of which I have had experience.
In technology and startup journalism, there came a point perhaps five years ago at which some consumers wouldn’t tolerate the low standards of the trade press–journalists who write for the industry, and for each other–any longer. With rapid growth in any industry comes fresh attention from consumers and pageviews for existing bloggers, many of whom struggle to execute journalism to the standards readers have come to expect from mainstream outlets.
In other words, for a while, trade hacks are writing consumer journalism. It’s obvious that this will cause problems sooner or later.
In startup journalism, the world I began in, readers objected to how close bloggers were to their subjects, and the fact that the same startups journalists wrote about were sponsoring and funding those bloggers’ conferences. The potential for, and in some cases reality of, abuse was obvious.
Two things happened. One, mainstream outlets–newspapers, magazines and TV stations–spotted this clamour for better journalism, and responded to it by investing in the sector. The Wall Street Journal in particular did a terrific job of building a new audience who wanted news and commentary about tech from what is arguably the best newspaper in the world.
Two, new outlets emerged that defined themselves by speaking truth to power and by their independence from their investors. An example from the tech world is PandoDaily, which started as just another compromised tech blog, but which, under the leadership of my old friend Paul Carr, has become something the tech industry genuinely fears.
The same will inevitably now happen, I reckon, to the video games industry, as journalists and entrepreneurs spot the commercial opportunity in readers’ desires for unbiased coverage that holds the games industry to account without fear or favour, and which is free from grubby personal connections to the subjects of its reporting.
The old models–in tech, TechCrunch; in games, Kotaku and Polygon–continue, but in substantially weakened form once other powerful players enter the market. They lose the moral authority they previously enjoyed and have to come up with innovative new ways to keep their businesses sustainable. Meanwhile, real journalism is done by other people, and readers are more satisfied by the choices on hand.
Today, the mainstream media covers startups and technology with impressive expertise and technical accuracy. The Guardian’s recent revelations about Whisper show that investigative and news desk reporters who would not traditionally have taken an interest in tech have educated themselves sufficiently to break big stories–and to get the details right.
The same thing is about to happen to gaming. I’d keep an eye on the BBC, in particular, which I am told is having internal discussions about ramping up its coverage of video games. But also sites whose journalists sympathise with the concerns–and simply like the personalities–of particular segments of readers.
With more reporters and more news outlets better abreast of an industry, coverage of it can only improve, because they no longer need to rely on the ethically-challenged echo chamber of an industry’s own trade press, and can instead talk directly to sources themselves.
Plus, of course, with outlets on both sides of political and cultural divide showing an interest, controversial occurrences and stories in those industries are covered with more fairness and thoroughness from day one. Only now are we starting to see signs from the mainstream media that they recognise GamerGate has some valid concerns about games journalism ethics. That ought to have happened sooner.
So wrongdoing will be exposed as never before, by better resourced, better educated, more impartial, more fearless and more talented writers. That’s a good thing for everyone. At present, video games fans engage in a sort of self-harm any time they visit a site like Polygon or Kotaku, hoping to glean something of value but knowing that they are likely to leave angry and unsatisfied.
What will suffer in this picture is reviews of new games, because, without the kickbacks and financial incentives available to bloggers who don’t mind compromising themselves, there will be less of an incentive for reviews to be prioritised. What’s more, supposedly professional journalists have proven themselves unreliable when it comes to writing about new games, preferring to dwell on their own psychological hang-ups, rather than gameplay or visual quality.
Here’s where the games industry already has an answer: YouTubers, for whom readers are already abandoning the press in their millions already, seeking trustworthy critique about new titles.
YouTube reviewers are not journalists, and their craft is in its infancy, so there are still some bugs to iron out. Readers will have to decide whether they are comfortable with some of the financial deals being struck between YouTubers and games publishers. It seems likely that most readers will not be happy with payment for positive coverage, for example, since it feels instinctively unfair. Radical transparency will be required about these deals.
Yet if there’s one thing gamers have demonstrated they can do effectively, it is police the people they listen to. So I am optimistic about an ethical consensus being reached.
What seems more and more likely all the time is the abandonment of the “preview” model for games entirely. Publishers will have to seek out new ways to create anticipation for their releases than leaking early copies to selected paid reviewers. It may be that the era of previews is over, and that everyone will get access to games at the same time in future. Some consumers will wait a few days to hear what their preferred sources think before making an investment. Publishers will learn to deal with that.
YouTubers aren’t there to do investigative journalism, even though many of them have shown great aptitude for it. So it’s my hunch that the important job of uncovering malpractice–financial, sexual or otherwise–in the games industry will rest with a newly energised and motivated mainstream media and the new outlets that rise from the ashes of the GamerGate controversy.
When the whole of the mainstream media–from sites like Breitbart and TV channels such as FOX News over to the, let’s say, more prescriptive and politically liberal worlds of MSNBC and the New Yorker–is engaged in the daily business of video games, a full gamut of opinions will be available. Readers will be able to choose from a plurality of outlets, where currently they have a limited selection of very similar sites.
The sheer size of the games industry makes this development inescapable: there are simply too many readers and too much potential ad revenue out there for publishers to ignore video games forever.
Five years from now, false narratives such as the “GamerGate misogyny” meme won’t establish themselves in the first place, or at least not so easily, because they will become ideological battlegrounds from day one for people who already care deeply about games. (Unlike, say, the entire GamerGate movement relying on the lucky accident of a single journalist taking an interest.)
So you see the golden era of Kotaku, and sites like it, is over–and that is one of the many things GamerGate has already achieved. The stranglehold of websites read under protest by readers has been broken. They will have to operate now under uncomfortable, but cleansing, scrutiny from readers, with new entrants in to the marketplace and, I am convinced, soon, competition from more established outlets anxious to connect with gamers.
It’s easy to look out on a sea of damning headlines and be disheartened by the way in which GamerGate has been characterised by the press. But sober analysis reveals–as a forthcoming piece by my colleague Noah Dulis intends to show–that GamerGate has already succeeded or on its way to succeeding in virtually every goal it has set itself.
Don’t underestimate the terror at companies such as Gawker and Vox Media right now. They’re putting on a brave and defiant face, but consumers and readers have spoken. Structural changes are afoot. And, as we all know, the consumer always ultimately wins–especially when that consumer is ruthless, systematic, brilliantly organised and has spent the last ten years obsessively focused on winning.