Games journalism just levelled up, from self-harm to suicide. Having unsuccessfully tried to convince a generation of hardcore gamers that their hobby is misogynistic and racist, the games press has stepped up its campaign against the video games industry and begun to target game developers themselves.
The development was inevitable, ever since high-profile developer Mark Kern this week announced a petition calling on the worst offenders in the games press, Kotaku and Polygon–the outlets widely regarded as publishing the most divisive, hateful and hand-wringing coverage–to “lead the way in healing the rift in video games.” Kern’s petition followed an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit widely regarded as a public relations disaster for the gaming industry.
The episode took its cues from recent reporting on the GamerGate scandal, which has ignored the ethical concerns of ordinary gamers and focused exclusively on alleged threats and harassment feminist campaigners have claimed they received–some of which, GamerGate supporters allege, were fabricated by the supposed victims.
“On Feb. 11, Law and Order SVU aired an episode about video games called “Intimidation Game” that is being called the “Reefer Madness” of our times,” wrote Kern in his petition. “It was a relentless and histrionic parade of slander against video games and gamers. It has helped set back the public image of the video games by years if not decades. It made absolutely nobody happy in the gaming industry.
“This result, this episode, shown to millions of non-gamers worldwide is the inevitable result of months of gaming press coverage on the rift between gamers that currently plagues our hobby. A rift that the gaming press are accountable for conflagrating through a slew of articles that only served to fan the flames, celebrate the extremists on both sides, magnify the rift and sensationalize the issue.
“There is a term for this, called yellow journalism, and it has started wars before. It has no place in a gaming press that is supposed to support our industry and gamers in particular, of all walks.”
Kern’s wording is diplomatic, but his meaning is clear: for years, these sites and others have deliberately provoked ordinary gamers, mocking them, declaring them dead and telling them that the games they enjoy are sexist and “problematic,” luxuriating in faux-academic feminist broadsides against a bewildered fandom.
His words must have stung: he is conciliatory, but doesn’t pull any punches about who’s to blame. And he’s one of the first in what will surely be a wave of developers breaking ranks to express what so far has only been said by the amorphous online movement known as GamerGate: that games journalism is rotten.
We know from veteran games CEO Brad Wardell of Stardock, not to mention dozens of off-the-record comments and interviews, that many developers are quietly sympathetic to many of the complaints expressed by GamerGate.
They, too, find the games press laughably amateurish and unprofessional, and they are furious at outlets such as Kotaku and Polygon for endlessly trashing video games instead of sticking up for their industry. Buried in the judicious wording of statements from developers like Kern is a tacit admission: GamerGate was right.
Dozens of formerly neutral YouTube personalities came out in support of GamerGate after watching a segment on ABC Nightline that focused entirely on claims of harassment made by feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, darling of the games press, and another feminist agitator, which they said painted their hobby in an entirely unfair light.
Now that the fire and brimstone epics about supposed harassment and alleged death and rape threats has died down, and the mainstream media’s attention has begun to move on, prominent industry figures are coming out of the woodwork–better late than never, gamers tell me–to pay lip service by perfunctorily condemning harassment before swiftly moving on to criticising the games press in nearly identical terms to GamerGate supporters.
On Tuesday, lead game designer at Ubisoft Annecy Tim Browne did something that would have been unthinkable a month ago: he tweeted a link to a series of articles critical of Sarkeesian. Sarkeesian’s work is extremely shoddy, her examples cherry-picked and her analyses based on ancient, discredited academic theories, but she is regarded as a Delphic Oracle by limp-wristed bloggers at Gawker and Vox.
Former creative director and co-founder of Irrational Games Ken Levine is another developer who has broken ranks to hold the games press to account for the Law and Order debacle. Despite being relentlessly, mercilessly and mendaciously bullied and victimised by the games press, finally, GamerGate is enjoying something like vindication as senior industry figures fall in line to criticise lousy game websites.
Unfortunately, though, if early signs are anything to go by, the wounded and snarling games press–whose job is being rapidly cannibalised by YouTubers, to whom most gamers now go for trusted reviews–won’t die without one last baring of teeth. Nor without lashing out at yet another innocent constituency: game makers themselves. Dissent cannot go unpunished.
Consider this thinly-veiled threat from Patrick Garrett of VG247, which has gone down like a cup of cold sick with developers, who accuse Garrett of threatening them should they sign Kern’s appeal for reconciliation and tolerance. “The last thing the gaming community needs at the moment is more ill-informed bigots getting angry on the internet. Think before you sign. It may be very difficult to erase the ink,” wrote Garrett.
That has been interpreted by most as a broadside warning developers that if they express opinions critical of the press, they can expect retaliation. To really drive the point home, Garrett decorated his piece with a picture of… you guessed it: Anita Sarkeesian. I am told that there are at least two more op eds along similar lines in preparation this week elsewhere in the games press.
Ultimately, the trendy social justice bloggers and their feminist allies will not win this fight. Ultimately, developers are their advertisers, and having already alienated large swathes of their own readership, half of whom already refuse to visit their sites without ad-blocker software, the commercial departments at these sites will have to step in, sooner or later.
Particularly because, higher up the food chain, there are signs that figures with real-world clout are sick of the sloppy standards and politicisation of modern games journalism. PewDiePie, one of the internet’s most famous YouTubers and a hero to millions of young gamers, openly complained about the standard of journalism recently in a thinly-veiled allusion to GamerGate.
And then of course there’s YouTuber Totalbiscuit, who has for some time been dishing out hard truths, who embarked on a gigantic rant this week about notorious Polygon journalist Ben Kuchera and the press in general.
Meanwhile, new journalistic powers are rising, such as William Usher, who has established himself as one of the most promising games writers to emerge from the wreckage of the exposed GameJournoPros mailing list. (Usher leaked dozens of emails from the private mailing list games journalists used to collude and influence each other’s coverage. He also has a detailed and well-referenced post about the developer backlash I encourage you to read.)
The cozy clique of video game journalists are skewering olive branches with their pitchforks. But something tells me their encounter with developers will be even bloodier than their failure to persuade a generation of gamers that the hobby they love is a cesspool of racism and sexism. If you think the fans were angry, can you imagine how the people who made the games are going to feel?