Traditionalism, Astroturfing, And Growth: How Games Are Changing
If you float around in game writing circles, you have no doubt been exposed to #GamerGate at this point. While ostensibly a movement to "focus on corruption in gaming media," it's actually about the harassment of women and minorities and freelancers in an effort to cut off their voices from the gaming medium. It's a thoroughly disgusting movement for many reasons, but there are a few well-intentioned people in among the hordes of people behaving in bad faith.
This post is for them.
The dirt that #GamerGate uncovered in the gaming industry is not dirt on game writers or developers, but rather dirt on the old guard of the gaming community. It's a perfect example of how "hardcore gamers" want to be taken seriously while refusing to accept that games are an artistic medium worthy of genuine critique.
Since there will be an uncommonly large amount of self-reference in this essay, here is a brief background on me: I am James Murff, and I've been a game critic (I detest the term journalist) for about seven years now. I've had stuff published in places like Massively, PC Gamer, and Rock Paper Shotgun. I'm currently on the senior staff for the gaming site TheMittani.com, which primarily caters to EVE players and grognards.
Right-Wing Gaming Traditionalism
The first and most important aspect of this movement is that it is, at its core, an astroturf for gaming traditionalists.
A gaming traditionalist is the kind of person who plays something like Gone Home or Depression Quest and scoffs at it "not being a game." They are the kind of people who have to rigidly reduce games down to components such as graphics, mechanics, and so on in order to understand what a game is. They are the people holding this medium back.
I used to be a traditionalist. Around the time I joined TIGsource, I was staunchly in favor of what people now call "ludological games" - games where the player determines their own story through a complex interconnection of mechanics. The poster child for this sort of design, Dwarf Fortress, is still one of my favorite games, so I definitely love these sorts of experiences.
As I grew up, though, I recognized that games are a fundamentally artistic medium, which means that there will be a wide range of games that may not fall within my specific definition. I originally detested games like The Graveyard or Dear Esther as nonsensical wastes of my time; after all, if I wanted to experience a totally linear narrative, I'd go see a movie, right?
This was a notion that I overcame through emotional maturity. It's not my place to define what is art and what is not; that's a thoroughly proscriptive notion that I threw out once I became more aware of the principles of post-modernism. Once I dropped this obsession with classical game design and creation, I also stopped calling myself a gamer. At the time, I felt that the term gamer no longer applied; I was no longer somebody who merely played games, but I became somebody who understood games, or at least understood what they meant to me.
GamerGate is not a movement about corruption. It's a movement about silencing those who dare to make or talk about games in a way other than the traditional old-guard of non-critical reviews. This is why it disproportionately targets women, indie-focused writers, and freelancers without a support system. It's the closest that gaming has to a right-wing extremist party.
Everyone Knows Everyone
If you believe that this is about corruption, though, it becomes a function of "why do all these people know each other?"
The simple answer is that this is an industry in which people become familiar with one another. Indie developers and journalists tend to run in the same circles, as those circles are the ones friendliest to them. There is no grand conspiracy, no assault on gaming; people know each other and talk about and with each other because the scene is a social one.
I consider myself friends (although not close friends) with a large number of indie developers. This is because I spent a lot of my early writing career focusing on indie games, and proceeded to become involved in communities like TIGsource. I am fundamentally embedded in this culture by choice, and I write about it because it's so fascinating. Nobody twists the arm of somebody else for press, and nobody in this industry expects anybody else to provide them with coverage.
The Burden of Professionalism
When writing about games, you inevitably come to know people who make games. This is impossible to avoid; in much the same way that the White House Press Corps comes to know the Press Secretary very well, game writers come to know developers and public relations people very well.
The notion that this personal familiarity is damaging to writing about games is ludicrous. Writers know people because it is important to their work, and they act professionally because that's simply what they do. If you asked a prominent, professional games writer to plug you because you are their personal friend, chances are they'd say no.
This is because adults learn to separate their personal and professional lives. While I do quite enjoy the company of several indie developers, I will not write about them unless it serves a specific professional purpose. For me to cover a story in a professional capacity for a site I am working for, I have to consider it of interest to my readers or myself. While I don't always put out work that I know will appeal to my readership - Simplikation is entirely built around just talking about gaming without having to appeal to anybody - I do consider "Should I really write this up?" every time a friend drops a story in my lap.
All that happens when everybody knows everybody else is that information is disseminated faster. This is a good thing for those that care about game writing, as it means more niche titles and developers are noticed.
The notion that "games journalism" is in any way directly comparable to a place like Reuters is patently absurd, and every single writer in this industry knows it.
Game writing is, fundamentally, an enthusiast-driven enterprise. People write about games because they want to write about games, not because they aim to investigate or expose. Of course, there are avenues for excellent journalism, if a writer takes the right approach. The Polygon piece on surveillance in Chicago is a particularly great journalistic piece, for example.
Expecting game writing to adhere to the same standards as "real journalism" is ridiculous. The standards being laid out by the #GamerGate crowd are not only impossible to follow when you work as an entertainment-based writer, they aren't even followed by the actual press; embedding with and knowing people is a fundamental part of becoming a good real-life journalist.
This ties back into the burden of professionalism. Journalists are often informed on issues and events by the people they know, but being a good writer means separating your personal bias (I really like this game) from professional interest (Is it really worth writing about?). Journalists, enthusiast or not, build up a support network of friends and informants that provide them with the details necessary to write a good piece. A good journalist always fact-checks these statements and corroborates this information.
Holding game writing to a journalistic standard that is followed by precisely nobody - not even professional, real-life journalists that cover stories such as war or politics - is damaging. Holding them to a standard that doesn't apply - enthusiast media is fundamentally different from "real media" - is also damaging.
There's also the notion that game writers must cater to their audience and appeal to the consumer at large.
If you write about games, you owe nothing to your audience. They read you because you speak to them on some level. This is all a part of finding writers that you love to read - my personal list includes people like Jenn Frank, Liz Ryerson, and Cara Ellison, among so many others - whether because they share your biases or because they challenge them. These writers owe nothing to you, the consumer. They often try to write in a way that they feel is consistent with their audience, but they have no burden to write things that you agree with.
The only master a game writer has is the medium itself. You write about games because you love games and you want to see the medium grow and evolve in a way that you like. This is all that truly matters to a game writer. When I write an essay here on Simplikation, I write because I love the medium and I want to share my thoughts on it with the world. I owe nothing at all to you readers, although I do cherish and love each and every one of you for reading my work and agreeing or disagreeing with it.
If you don't like a writer, don't throw a fit and demand they change or you'll go elsewhere. Just read something else. The writer's onus is towards the medium as a whole, not towards your feelings.
As a side note, there are plenty of people and sites that will exploit your entitlement. These people do not care about you and do not care about the medium; their goal is to make money and become famous, not grow gaming as a whole. Promoting them is essentially being duped into supporting an institution that exploits you, rather than speaks to you.
Bizdev and Editorial
A lot of confusion about this #GamerGate nonsense revolves around a misunderstanding involving advertising and editorial. As I've worked at several large sites, and help run one at the moment, here's a breakdown of how the business of ad-driven game writing works. Hopefully this will clear up any misunderstanding.
When you run a game site, you have two departments: business development, otherwise known as bizdev, and editorial. Bizdev focuses on advertisement, promotion, and growth, while editorial focuses on writing and providing good content. In every site I've ever worked at, these departments are completely separate from one another. Never the twain shall meet.
There are, of course, publications where these departments blur together. These publications are almost universally tied to a single system or publisher, though; places like Kotaku, Polygon, Joystiq, Rock Paper Shotgun, and so on have total separation of bizdev and editorial. If you are reading Nintendo Power or Playstation Underground, there's a fair chance that the article you are reading was influenced by the developer in question. If you are reading an article on Kotaku, that chance drops to zero.
Advertising and editorial do not talk to each other in a well-run site. There are some coincidental overlaps, of course; TMC, for example, had a Hearthstone ad campaign while we were reviewing the Curse of Naxxramas Hearthstone expansion. This is more due to the pacing of ads and reviews than any actual collusion. Just because something looks a particular way doesn't mean it is that way.
YouTube Won't Kill Game Writing
The funniest part about advertising rules and writing is they go completely out the window when you move to YouTube or Twitch.
If you've read anything about games recently, you've likely come across a piece talking about how YouTube is killing the traditional games press, as YouTubers are "more honest" or "more reliable." This is almost comical in how wrong it is.
Let's point to explicit "coverage influenced by advertisement" scandals in traditional gaming media. You only have one - the Jeff Gerstmann Gamespot incident - which we still don't know all the details for. A single public incident that is seven or so years ago at this point is not indicative of an endemic problem in gaming media.
Now look at YouTube. YouTube, as a personality-centric platform, rewards writers and creators who entertainers, not critics. People like TotalBiscuit, JonTron, Pewdiepie, Yahtzee, and so on are not really critics, as they do not engage in critical thought about what they are covering; they have no burden of critical thought placed upon them. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as there will always be space for both entertainers and critics, but saying that they will replace professional writers is almost surreal in its total lack of understanding.
There's also a problem with severe astroturfing with YouTube. People like Yogscast openly talk about accepting money in order to cover a game, and the payola scandal involving Battlefield 4 was a significant blow to the legitimacy of content creators on YouTube. It's much easier to astroturf a prominent celebrity when they work for themselves, as they are beholden to nobody.
Really, this is a function of "it's easy to astroturf with unknown people." If you are reading a large or well-known site, it's not under any sort of influence from publishers or developers other than the same influences that the average person is subjected to. Once you slip down the ladder a few rungs, though, and you start visiting sites with niche readerships and a very small core staff without any writing experience, there's a chance - still low, but higher than the zero chance for larger publications - that they were influenced directly by publishers.
Gamers Are Dead
A lot of the anger surrounding #GamerGate stems from the notion that gaming culture is moving away from the people it has primarily catered to - shut-in obsessed nerds - and towards a much wider audience.
This is why a rash of "Gamers are dead" articles ran recently on major sites. These articles are not literally decrying the death of the entire medium - that would be silly. Rather, these articles use a reference - Death of the Author - to point out that games are moving away from proscriptive, hardcore-driven experiences and towards subjective, all-inclusive experiences.
Gamers as the concept they are now are indeed dying; many prominent hardcore players no longer call themselves gamers because of the association with a toxic community, myself included. As the medium matures, so do its proponents and audience, and we are reaching the point where playing games is an activity literally everybody does, not just something weird neckbeards do in their mom's basement.
Of course, the #GamerGate people are trying to twist this into meaning that all people who play games are gamers. This is not true at all. "Gamer" is a self-identified, self-described term that originated within the community to mean somebody embedded within the lifestyle of playing games. Calling everybody who plays games a "gamer" is like calling everybody who has ever seen a movie a "cinephile" or everybody who has ever eaten food a "foodie." Gamers are a very specific subculture within the larger community of people who play games, and painting it as anything other than that is dishonest.
Do you think games are art, or should be taken seriously as a medium? Don't appeal to how much money they make.
If there's one part of the industry that damages games the most, it's that it's an industry. When you create a machine built around producing, disseminating, and charging for art, you reduce the value of that art into a commodity intended to be transferred. It's the most dehumanising, anti-artistic thing you can do to a medium, and there's a reason why people who do the most interesting art work outside of the traditional capitalist structure.
When you brag about how much money the game industry makes, you are bragging about how much you are exploited as a consumer. When you brag about how many games you own, you are bragging about how many times you bought art intended solely to make money. When you talk about how consumers are the most important part of the game industry, you fundamentally devalue the artistic validity of games as a whole. In all these situations, you are stating that money means more to you than thought, that capital means more than emotion, that production means more than culture.
Games are, and always will be, art. By focusing your attention on the mass-marketed, mass-distributed games that are intended to press your buttons until you pony up cash, you injure the medium. This is not to say that developers making AAA games don't do it out of love, or that AAA games are not art; they do, and they are. But talking about how much money a game made in sales, rather than what that game means to you or its place in the history of the medium, you are removing its value as art and replacing it with value as a commodity.
Of course, if you think games are toys, this doesn't matter. But if you want to be taken seriously, maybe don't appeal to the money angle. Consumers are essentially cattle to a capitalist system, and you are thanking publishers for carting you to the figurative slaughterhouse by bragging about how much money you spend or is spent on that system.
Discontent in Paradise
All of these problems add up to some serious discontent in the gaming world. While this discontent is a valid feeling, the reasons behind it are smokescreen for what is really going on.
When self-proclaimed gamers complain about corruption and nepotism in the medium, they aren't complaining about how people hire others that they already know, or how writers tend to become familiar with developers. They are complaining about the fundamental culture shift of games for them to games for everybody. This discontent, while real, is focused on the wrong target. Rather than blaming developers and writers for attempting to change the medium in a way that makes it more of a geniune artistic medium, blame consumers and capitalism for holding it back this long.
We are in a grand new age of games; people are making both the most complex games ever made and quiet, personal stories about their lives and feelings. This is so exciting to me, as somebody who grew up in the medium, and it should be exciting to everybody.
Growing the Medium
The biggest takeaway from #GamerGate is that games still have a long way to go before we can really consider them a mature medium. It seems the only people who actually care about growing this art in a significant way are fighting against traditionalists who want to be the gatekeepers for "what is a game?"
If you want to personally grow as a person who plays games and as somebody who contributes to the growth of the medium and culture surrounding games, here are my suggestions:
- Before accusing others of corruption or malfeasance, take a look at your evidence and see if you aren't merely applying a perceptual bias based on your own feelings of inadequacy and discontent.
- Talk about games as an art form; stop talking about price points and release dates, and instead talk about feelings and thoughts.
- Engage in critical thought. When you like something, think about why you like it, and then think about why that is the reason you like it. Dig deep.
- Include everybody. Do not marginalize minorities in an effort to fix a problem that doesn't exist.
- Realize that games are not proscriptive. They are one of the oldest inventions of mankind, and videogames are just the most recent version. The larger medium is millenia old, and attempting to put a specific, set-in-stone description on it just harms its growth
Above all else, think about games and the people who make them. All of us hopefully want games to grow and mature.
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