So, it's been a bad few weeks at this point. If you're lucky, you've missed on a whole range of controversy surrounding the hashtags #GamerGate and #NotYourShield, the idea that the "gamer" identity is dead, and ethics in games journalism. There was a single touchpoint that had nothing to do with the game industry that exploded into a social media war. People have been insulted, harassed, had their personal information released, and been forced to leave their homes for their own safety. Vox has a rundown of the entire controversy to get you up to speed.
Before I dig in, let me say full-stop: Harassment is never good. We can certainly disagree in conversations without resorting to threats against one another. Period. We do not accept harassment here on USgamer and if your comments are of that nature, we will delete them. While there's certainly good faith messages coming from #GamerGate, there's also a great deal of harassment. That constant, organized harassment has led to women leaving the industry altogether, like Jenn Frank. That's sad and unacceptable. I can also agree that there has been harassment in the other direction, with a transgender teen having been doxxed (the release of personal information) in an article on #GamerGate.
The genesis of this controversy was the release of information relating to the personal life of Depression Quest developer Zoe Quinn. We did not report on that because we did not find it newsworthy. Were there conflicts of interest related to Quinn and journalists? Not any concrete ones we could find. Instead, it was a situation between a man and a woman in a relationship that the man chose to spread to a wider audience. That's not news, it's gossip and slander. Many of the accusations that have popped up beyond that starting point also lack any proof. Even beyond that, USgamer's editorial remit has moved beyond the day-to-day news that other sites can give our readers; we'll certainly analyze news and rumors, but we're not directly reporting it much anymore.
We Are All Gamers
On the first hashtag, #GamerGate, many believe that it started as a retaliation to Leigh Alexander's article, "'Gamers' don't have to be your audience. 'Gamers' are over." (It did not. The first use of the hashtag was by actor Adam Baldwin, in relation to Zoe Quinn.) The article attempted to say that "gamer" was an outdated label for a group that has evolved beyond where we were in the past. Many felt her descriptions of gamers and game culture were incendiary. I get that. You certainly won't find me arguing that "gamer" as a title is dead, especially since it features so prominently into our name above.
The problem is "gamer" is such a wide, far-reaching label that can essentially cover anyone who plays games. There are many wonderful people who self-identify as gamers. I've met them, I've talked with them. They're why PAX is one of my favorite events to cover; seeing the interaction between developers and gamers is a treat.
There is also hate and fear in some gamers. There is a backlash towards criticism of any titles that fans may enjoy, whether this criticism is related to mechanics or aesthetics. This has become more frequent with the advent of the internet and social media; in the era of magazines a stern letter might not even make to the writer in question. Now, you can email and message us directly. That's good when it comes to engaging discussion, but horrible when it comes to those who would harass.
For some writers, the aesthetic criticism has been based around social issues like sexism and racism. It's based around the representation of minorities and women in the game industry. Being a minority, I'm personally empathetic to these points of view. It certainly doesn't comprise most of my writing, but at times I will be driven to write editorials tackling those topics. That's how it works, we write about what resonates with us in a effort to have a conversation with you, the reader.
Some say that they don't care about topics like race, gender, and inclusiveness in their media; they just want to enjoy their games. They ask us to keep "politics" and "agendas" out of gaming. That's fine, but they should be cognizant of the fact that the status quo is a position. "Neutrality" is dependent on local circumstances - politically neutral in the United States is different from politically neutral in China - thus there is no true neutral. The status quo is an agenda. What we are as a community now is not what we were 10 or 20 years ago. We are constantly evolving and growing; as that growth happens more people are speaking up, seeking to have a voice in how our community and culture evolves. We need more voices and viewpoints in the discussion, which is why harassment is bad for anyone.
Some ask that we just focus on the "game", but games aren't just about the mechanics. The mechanics, the aesthetics, and the player come together to create a complete experience. That is why you can give a game to 10 different people and get 10 different viewpoints. That is why we have second opinions in our reviews. We don't always have the bandwidth to do them, but we want to show you that reviews change with viewpoint. People talk of "agendas", when most of these writers are just writing about the truth of their viewpoint. That's honesty and transparency. That is what many have said they want from the games media.
We strive to provide our honest takes in everything we write. When we write articles, we journalists are having a conversation with all of you: the passionate fans, the casual players, the occasional gamer, and even the trolls. From this position, you frequently see the best and the worst gamers have to offer.
I can understand, especially due to the sheer volume, believing the worst in a group. Some journalists have disdain for parts of gamer culture, while some gamers believe the games media is hopelessly corrupt. That stems from something called the out-group homogeneity effect, the tendency to perceive your group as individual, while lumping people in other groups together. You probably do it to some other large group with a wide banner: Democrats, Republicans, feminists, libertarians, any religion, atheists, etc. It's easy to see the bad actors of any outside group as representative of the group as a whole. We're all human and it happens, but we should try better in seeing each other as thinking individuals. That also requires those within the group policing their own; harassment isn't fine when it comes from your side or because your cause is just. That's moral equivalence at work and we can all be better than that.
Part of the rallying cry behind #GamerGate was a call for greater ethics in games journalists. I'm sympathetic to that. Journalism, regardless of topic, always has room to improve. I have a Twitter List that's all smart people talking about journalism. There are certainly issues involving visibility in long-form content, rumor-mongering, aggregation, press events, and corporate partnership agreements. We can certainly talk about that in a frank, ongoing discussion. USgamer has a code of ethics, most people just never scroll down to our Policies page to see it.
The problem I see in many of the demands is a misunderstanding in how journalism works in our industry. Games journalism is comprised of multiple parts: news reporting, criticism, enthusiast reporting, and investigative journalism. They all happen in tandem in a healthy industry. News reporting is the straightforward, boilerplate stuff that we've largely left behind, but you can still find on our fellow Gamer Network sites like Eurogamer, GamesIndustry International, and VG247. Criticism sounds bad - who wants to be critical all the time? - but it's really about digging deeper into gaming content and culture to understand why they operate the way they do. Enthusiast reporting is the stuff you'd find on websites for other niches like tech and automotive: the trailers, previews, reviews, lists, and guides. Finally, there's the investigative reporting, which is what many people think of when they think of journalism. (More on those different types of journalism in relation to the current controversy can be found in this article.)
Investigative journalism is amazing, but there are two inherent issues with it. One, it takes a long time to research and write a great investigative or long-form article, meaning it's nearly impossible to sustain a site on investigative journalism alone; that's why writers like Simon Parkin are freelance and writers like Jason Schreier and Patrick Klepek augment their longer work with other content.
Two, the gaming industry isn't politics, government, or health; we're largely driven by an entertainment product, so there's less of a need for those within the industry to speak out and provide direct sources for certain issues. That's why some of the industry's bigger investigative pieces - Crytek's recent issues and the fall of Team Bondi for example - tended to only come after those involved had little to lose. They weren't being paid or had already left the company, so they felt fine speaking under anonymous conditions (they still have to work within the industry). When everything is working well (as well as long hours of crunch can get), the only way we journalists get information is through relationships we've crafted.
You're Dancing Too Close
This is where we get into one of the points of contention in #GamerGate: that journalists should have little to do with those they cover. Unfortunately, that's not how great journalism works. It thrives on creating connections and relationships you trust. One of the stories held up as amazing journalism is Woodward and Bernstein's work in the Watergate scandal. That only happened because Woodward had befriended Federal Bureau of Investigation Associate Director Mark Felt years earlier. That allowed the pair to leverage an inside source.
Perhaps you've seen VICE News' amazing coverage of ISIS' actions in the Middle East. VICE News reporter Medyan Dairieh spent three weeks embedded within ISIS to make that a reality. That didn't happen just because he was a journalist. That happened because he had connections in the region that trusted him. Connections he's probably had dinner with or shared their homes. That could be a conflict of interest if you were looking at it in a cut and dry manner, but things like that are what real journalism requires. The work speaks for itself. That's not to say there aren't conduct guidelines we should follow, but journalism is predicated on access, which requires either an inside source or outright theft (which is illegal in most cases).
Every journalist who cares follows an ethical code. We have our policies, but I also tend to stick to some guidelines set down by Roger Ebert, one of the classic movie critics. They're worth a read, as they cover swag, review copies, friendship with those in your industry, and direct conflicts of interest. Most sites have their own policies, others stick to the SPJ's Code of Ethics. SPJ's work on creating a "timeless" code ignores some of the realities of journalism today, so places like journalism school Poytner have crafted their own code for the 21st century, even if some of the guidelines remain the same.
As it stands, the #GamerGate hashtag is as broad as the gamer label; there are many great, honest people participating, but they unfortunately exist alongside the malcontents, who are having a real, measurable effect on the industry. Ethics in journalism is an ongoing discussion that we're always willing to have. I've been a part of that discussion over in NeoGAF, but that's also a discussion we're willing to have in our community here. If you remain civil, I can certainly do my best to answer any questions you may have in the comments below. If your aim is a games media with strong ethics and greater transparency, I'm completely sympathetic. If your aim is to find an outlet for your rage or to chase amazing voices from our industry, you can do that elsewhere.
And if you're new here, welcome to USgamer. There's always room for new and diverse voices in our community.
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