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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. 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.