#GamerGate and Game Journalism’s Ethics Problem

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Relevant links:

Overview of harassment against Zoe Quinn

IRC chat logs

Duke Nukem PR fail

Kotaku on mock reviews


A good criticism of Metacritic et al

Sorta transcript:

You may be familiar with the GAMERGATE phenomenon, which basically goes like this: a female game developer made a game called Depression Quest to let gamers experience what it’s like to live with depression. She was immediately harassed by mostly male gamers who didn’t think the game was worthy. Her ex-boyfriend published a tell-all blog post accusing her of sleeping around, including sleeping with a game journalist. The journalist in question never actually reviewed Depression Quest, but gamers used the ex’s allegations as an excuse to harass the developer further, threatening her life, publishing her home address and phone number, and forcing her to leave her home and stay with friends in fear for her life. There appears to be no equivalent bullying of the reviewer she supposedly slept with.

The gamers then came up with the gamergate hashtag as a rather blatant cover for their violent misogynistic harassment, disguising it as concern for ethics in game reviews. When people saw through that trick, they came up with the NOTYOURSHIELD hashtag, in which they created sock puppet accounts pretending to be women and minorities who agreed with the GAMERGATE hashtag, as though their poor arguments and transparent misogyny would be made more palatable if it came from someone from an oppressed group. It’s the Twitter equivalent of saying you can’t be racist because you have a vague, unnamed black friend who once laughed at your racist joke. “Oh, my arguments make no sense? Well what if I have this WOMAN say it?”

There are hundreds of pages of chat logs showing the gamers dreaming up these cover operations specifically to cover for threatening and harassing women…you can find a link to those logs below via We Hunted the Mammoth, where a blogger does an admirable job of wading through them and posting the horrors he found.

So I won’t spend much time on all that – especially since this time could be better spent playing bingo for money. What I do want to point out is that there actually are problems with ethics in video game journalism, but they have nothing to do female indie game developers having friends or lovers in the industry.

Back in 2011, the Redner Group made the mistake of publicly tweeting about their plan to punish critics who gave negative reviews to Duke Nukem by not allowing those critics access to future games. The use of blacklists isn’t new, but it’s usually much more difficult to tell who is doing this. It’s hard to prove that a publisher is purposely withholding opportunities from critics it dislikes.

But publishers can use non disclosure agreements to give exclusives to reviewers they do like, which at least forces negative reviews to wait until the game has released and positive press has already been established.

Then there are “mock reviews,” in which publishers hire critics to play games early, ostensibly to make changes to improve the game before release. Because those critics took money from the developer, they are unable to publish a review on the final game. Last year, Kotaku reported that a developer admitted to their reporter that he hired a critic for a mock review and then threw away the review without even looking at it. He had hired the critic only because the critic was likely to give the game a negative review, so by hiring him, they were able to cancel out the review before it even happened.

There are also companies trying to fix their reviews from users, as EA did earlier this year with Dungeon Keeper. When the game prompted users to rate the game for Android, users were offered two options: 5 stars, which upon clicking would take them to the marketplace to leave their review, or 1-4 stars, which upon clicking would take them to a feedback form that would be sent directly to EA.

And all that isn’t even getting into the problem of outlets like Metacritic, and trusting popular opinion on what makes a video game worthwhile or not. Video games have the opportunity to be so powerful specifically because they can be personalized experiences. Instead of just watching a story unfold as with a movie, you participate in the story.

It’s why I and many other people are loving this new wave of indie developers who are thinking outside the box when it comes to how to use video games. Games like Depression Quest, Gone Home, Braid, and Two Brothers are taking video games to the next level, to where it becomes undeniable that regardless of what Roger Ebert once said, video games can be and are art.

Don’t get me wrong: I still want video games like Borderlands where I can just spend an hour or two gunning down psychos with awesome guns for the sole purpose of getting more awesome guns. I want Citizen Kane AND Pacific Rim. True Detective AND America’s Next Top Model.

We’re poised to get that, with platforms like Steam allowing more indie developers than ever to find an audience and push the game industry forward. The things that are getting in the way? Review fixing by large-scale corporations, reliance on shallow popular reviews to judge a game’s worth, and more than anything, conservative, Rush Limbaugh-esque misogynistic gamers spending all their time coming up with more effective ways to bully women into leaving the industry rather than trying to make the industry better.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. I have to step in and defend Metacritic, since I’m pretty close with the people who created it. The intent of the site is specifically not to say what things are good based on popular opinion. It is a tool that gathers the professional reviews of a piece of entertainment (games, music, movies) into one place so that people can access the range of criticism easily and form their own opinions.

    The original creators never intended for user review to even be a part of it, that was added in it by the corporation that bought the site, but they have done their best to keep user reviews secondary and unemphasized. Also, user reviews are not included in the Metascore that is given to the game (or movie or whatever). Only the reviews of professional critics are counted and the score is calculated using an algorithm that takes into account a reviewer’s history and weights their score accordingly (so for example, if a reviewer consistently gives higher scores than other reviewers, that is accounted for).

    The site does not at all rate things based on popular opinion. The current highest rated PC game is a point and click adventure by an indie developer. It has a critic score of 91 and a user score of only 6.7, but the 91 is its “Metascore.” The biggest recent release, Destiny, has a Metascore of only 77 and critics scores range from 100 to 45. Gone Home, a story based game about a teen struggling with her sexuality scored an 86 on Metacritic and was listed as one of the top PC games of 2013 by the site. Scoring so highly on Metacritic gave the game a lot of publicity despite the popular opinion being really mixed, as you would expect with a game like that. It has been and is meant to be a discovery tool for exactly those types indie games (and movies and music) that you are so excited about specifically because those type of properties tend to get more critical acclaim than publicity and popular acclaim. That’s why on the home page you have movies like “Pride” featured right next to movies like “Gone Girl,” why Aphex Twin gets higher billing than Tony Bennett and why Hatoful Boyfriend is on the front page along with The Sims 4.

  2. The best point here is made early in the video.

    If this #gamergate was actually about ethics in journalism, why go after the game developer and not go after the critics that allegedly showed poor ethics?

    If you are going to come up for an excuse for your bad behavior, at least come up with a passable excuse.

  3. It appears that there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what is meant by “corruption” between the two parties here.

    In the Anti-GG side, there are 2 game design groups; Indie developers and AAA developers. The Indie developers are just trying to make good games. They’re trying to fix the corruption in gaming, and get their games reviewed on an even playing field. The AAA developers manipulate journalists with monetary rewards.

    According to the Pro-GG side, these two sides exist with that ongoing corruption, but the Progressive Indie developers are split into two further camps. The Indie developers that just want to make good games. Then there’s a second crowd, and they don’t just want Indie games, they want “progressive” Indie games. Over the last few years, this second crowd have been drinking the kool-aid and becoming more and more dominant and making friends in the right places. The games they want aren’t just fun games, they’ve got messages! They point to other games and how sexist they are, and how their games are progressive and better. They don’t want to co-exist with the other games, they want them dead. It started subtly at first, a feminist article here and there, a game getting wide spread esteem while a large portion of the readership see it as drearily DULL. Like the frog in the metaphorical saucepan, we’ve let things reach boiling point before we’ve reacted.

    The Zoe debacle was the point that we looked around and realised the water around us was boiling. We made noise, we wanted answers. Why are certain games being picked apart unfairly? Why are our representatives (the journalists) backing people up that misrepresent games like Hitman, with blatant lies? If the response had been “c’mon guys, we’re just diversifying, the games aren’t going to change if you don’t want them to” things would have been fine. Instead we got “Gamers are dead”. We shrug it off, but that _stung_. It stung because it was everything that we feared, that our cultural identity had been slowly eroded until it could be smashed apart in one sweep, replaced with whatever the Progressives wanted. We looked from Man to Pig, and realised that there was no difference. We backed you guys up, supported you through all the crappy AAA reviews, and you spat it back at us. You don’t want freedom in game design. You’ve got your own agenda just like AAA developers did, with money replaced by a position at the cool table.

    You ask why the vitriol at some Indie developers? They became everything that we now hated. They came to represent the new evil, and it was so much worse than before. At least before we got to blow shit up and drive cars through shop windows. Now we were faced with the prospect of Twine driven text games about being depressed. It was over-reactionary of course, every game won’t end up like that. But merely the threat that this agenda existed was enough.

    The massive retaliation from the gaming media was seen as confirmation of the agenda. We began to think that it was too late, that the infection was too deep now, replacing the existing rot with a fresh virus of misandry. The yells of “privilege” gave it more steam, and the censorship of our ability to reply only added an ironic powerless tint to the accusations of “privilege”. The movement picked up steam, and the more you tried to silence us, the louder we yelled. There has been abuse from both sides, and denying this will do little to repair your position. Before we can come close to resolving this issue, we need our problems to be recognised. Only then can a dialog be formed on how to move forwards from here. You call our fears absurd conspiracy, but look at yourselves and the positions you’re in. Look at how a staff member for a major publication can say “I am a megaphone…I won’t mind making an example out of you” and “it’s funny how dudes who are ‘aspiring games journalists’ tweet bullshit at me as if I cannot instantly kill all their dreams” with impunity and no sense of irony. How exactly, can you kill their dreams? If there’s no cool table, prove it to us. Listen to our fears, try to understand them, and respond like adults.

    1. I’m guessing, Bob, that this ‘dialog’ you speak of will be one where you never have to examine your own assumptions. That’s really what gamergate is about, at the end of all things: the demand by games to never have to engage in introspection.

    2. It feels like you’re being attacked, but you aren’t. You’re just having to deal with people that aren’t like you having a voice. It’s totally scary but it doesn’t actually threaten you. Sure, some games will feature people that are different from you but you know what? Good stories come from conflict. Straight white men don’t have a lot of conflict, and all the conflict they do have has been done to death. And frankly it’s time you guys started finding these stories condescending.

      You’re defending Aiden Pearce. Do you really want more Aiden Pearce?

      Also I don’t know what you mean by “respond like adults” but if you mean send you rape threats and steal your private intimate photos and send them to everyone on your address book and also try to get you fired I’m afraid you’ll find it difficult to find anyone here that is willing to do that. That should tell you something.

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