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How Gamergate Hides Real Problems in Games Journalism

Gamergate eh? I bet you’ve tried to explain it to someone who doesn’t follow games and realized how ridiculous it all is. Depending on who you are, you’ve either simplified the whole thing down to:

1. The games press are obviously corrupt, they all accept cash for good review scores and we can’t trust them at all.

2. It’s a bunch of troglodyte misogynists who are using journalistic integrity as an excuse to chase women out of games.

Now I’ve already had my say on this. I’ve been involved in the debates, I’ve argued with friends, and I’ve become too invested in the whole thing. Then I dropped out and became despondent. I would periodically glance at the hashtag through the gaps in my fingers, each Tweet draining my enthusiasm and love for games and games writing.

With Intel pulling their advertising away from Gamasutra (an academically focused site that, to my knowledge at least, doesn’t even review games) because of an organized Gamergate campaign, it seems like the whole controversy will continue into the foreseeable future.

Now I feel like I have to say something again. I’ve wanted to write about ethics in the games media for a while, and this seems like a good time to clear up some misconceptions, especially seeing as these misconceptions are so widespread and entrenched that they have become dogma.

The truth is out there, and it’s more subtle, nuanced and interesting than any of you imagine. As the owner of a games review site for five years now, it’s pretty clear to me what the problems are in the games media. And corruption is one of the problems. No, it really is. Gamergate, you have that (and only that) right.

But here’s the big, BIG problem: it’s not the kind of corruption that many Gamergate advocates think it is.

JFK is dead. The towers have collapsed. The rich are exploiting the poor. The problems are there. Unfortunately, Gamergate is studying footage of a grassy knoll to find proof that our lizard overlords set this all up as an inside job.

In other words I’m a games journalist, and I’m here to criticize myself and my industry because Gamergate isn’t doing it right.

Here’s the very last thing you ever need to read about Gamergate, and the actual facts on game media corruption

1. The Gamergate Problem: Games journalists accept cash for good reviews

This theory really doesn’t need much critical thought to break down. In fact, it’s really fucking stupid. But let’s discuss it anyway.

So how does the cash get transferred to the publication? How does the PR person offer the money? How do the negotiations go? Is it all in an email? How much for a 9 out of 10 for ShootMan WarPants 3? Forty grand? No wait, not in an email. Can’t leave a trail!

How about somewhere private. A park? Sit next to me on the bench. I’ll wear a brown coat and we’ll switch suitcases there. The password is “fidelio”.

Grow the fuck up.

Of course money isn’t exchanged for review scores. I assume anyone with any intelligence at all in the Gamergate movement realizes how unbelievably stupid that is and realizes that any corruption would have to be more subtle, more insidious and less like a shit spy movie.

If you were to offer cash, how could you be sure at least one of the hundreds (thousands) of games review sites wouldn’t expose you? I can tell you right now, if CDT could expose a publisher like that we would do it in a second. The site traffic for that expose would be through the roof!

And unless you think every single journalist in the world is already pre-corrupt, how do you stop one rogue, maverick journo exposing the whole conspiracy? Is there a special meeting where new journos are told “the secret”, then just as they scream “No, this is wrong!”, a screen is removed to show their family, tied up and held at gunpoint. “How much for that 9 out of 10 now Mr Welsh? Haha. HAHAHAHAHA! MWUAHAHAHAHAHA!!!”

No really, grow the fuck up.

The Real Problem: Games journalists exchange favourable preview pieces for access

Ok, enough of that utter bullshit. Here is a 100% true story of genuine game media corruption. This really happened and continues to happen all the time. And it will keep happening if you continue complaining about imaginary cloak and dagger nonsense and don’t look into the real stuff.

A big publisher emailed us to tell us they were changing their policies on who got review copies of games. From here on, they would allocate review code to those who covered the game THE MOST in the run up to it’s release. You see the problem, right?

Straight away, this particular game appears everywhere. Every one of the sites I visited had multiple preview pieces. This was a big game and people wanted it. We had to cover it. We had to jump through those hoops.

No actually, we didn’t. CalmDownTom refused and I phoned the PR company. Eventually they relented and said they wouldn’t do this any more. But did they just tell me this to placate me? Did the other sites who jumped through hoops get told about our argument on the phone. I doubt it.

This is how real corruption can seep in. It’s to do with ACCESS, not money. The power the publishers hold is that they control when and how we get the game, and we need the game to write about it. Worse, we are all competing with each other, so if we can get it before the rest, we win. We get more site traffic, more exposure. And the publisher controls that. They chose who gets the game and when they get it. Obviously that’s fucked up.

So generally we don’t write about games before we play them. And when other people do, we wonder if it’s to get access to a game. And obviously, writing critically about a game before it comes out isn’t going to win you an early review copy, so most of these features are very positive. Glowing even.

We won’t do that. It’s easy to write three or four fluff pieces about a game before it comes out. New horse announced. Check out this cool pre-order rifle-majig. Nicky Minaj to appear in Grand Theft Row as playable vehicle. And each of these fluff pieces can be included in your email when you ask for the review code. “Please sir, can I have the game to review. I wrote all these nice things about it.”

And it’s bullshit, and no one complains about it. Gamergate doesn’t look at these nothing-pieces and call them out. They don’t demand better quality journalism or more critique. Indeed, these vapid, empty articles about upcoming features in games no one has yet played get good traffic. People are reading them. They are part of the problem.

2. The Gamergate Problem: Indie developers are sleeping with people for good review scores

This is where Gamergate began, and no matter what anyone says, the movements inception was based around a really nasty smear campaign by a spurned lover aimed at ruining the life of a women games developer. You don’t have to go far to read the lurid details, but essentially an ex-boyfriend made allegations that his partner had slept with a long list of games reviewers for good reviews.

It seems that these seeds of distrust fell on fertile grounds. His allegations were implicitly accepted by many people who were already dissatisfied with games journalism in general, and games websites like Kotaku and Polygon in particular. As is the case with any messy break up, no one else should have been involved and it’s a pretty grim situation all round.

Now at this point it’s worth questioning why exactly so many people lent any credence to anything the spurned lover said. I guess many people already believed games websites were corrupt, and as such didn’t need evidence. This was the final nail in the coffin for them. In a way it was like finding out about the CIA phone hacking – everyone just assumed the Government was spying on them anyway. In the same way, games journalism was just, like, so obviously corrupt already anyway man!

So maybe the distrust of games websites is already entrenched and established. Our own Government lies to us, so it would stand to reason that games websites do as well.

I…. can’t argue with that reasoning. I also find it hard to trust anything I read online. That’s why I use my judgement to identify writers that I feel I can trust and respect, then I follow them regardless of which publication they write for.

Regardless of where the distrust came from, it’s clear that indie developers were too close to games journalists right? It’s those indies that are hanging out with games journalists each night, partying and drinking and fucking. Right?

The Real Problem: Large publishers are fucking us every way they can for good review scores

No, of course fucking not. Indie development is brutally, life-sappingly dificult. Making games is incredibly tough. I am constantly amazed that anyone chooses to do it. The few games I have made have been staggeringly shit, and I invested weeks and months into them, at the expense of my friends, family, health and personal hygiene.

(And incidentally, the idea that us games writers are getting constant sex for good reviews is easily the funniest thing I have ever read. Sure Gamergate. My penis is red raw from all these 4 out of 5’s I am giving out.)

The indies devs I know have two big problems: a lack of time and an unwillingness to market themselves. They are overworked, underpaid and they are often too shy or distrustful of marketing and self promotion to effectively sell their game.

Let’s be clear, indies don’t have time to commit to partying with games writers. They don’t have time to get drunk with them and fuck them and create Machiavellian theories on how to get a good review score. They’re too busy trying to make a game good enough to GET a good review score. Or more likely, they don’t give a fuck about review scores and just want people to play and enjoy their game.

You see this is where most of the Gamergate theories break down. They sound great to an outsider, but anyone with even the vaguest idea of how games writing and games development works knows they’re ridiculous. THIS IS WHY WE DON’T TAKE YOU SERIOUSLY!

Let’s imagine I make games. So I’m an indie developer. Because I have no money, spend all my time making games and have no energy for advertising, marketing or mingling at social events, I’m the one whose corrupting influence is poisoning gaming? NO NO NO!

Let’s imagine instead that I’m a marketing brand manager at a huge publisher now. I have an advertising campaign with a budget of millions of dollars. Some reviewer from a little game site is on Metacritic, and their 6 out of 10 is pulling down the overall rating for my game. I have money and power. Do you perhaps think I am more of a threat than the tired, overworked, poor indie dev? Do you think I might have ways to (surreptitiously) ensure that the little game site reviews my next game better? Of course I do.

I can take them to review events (CalmDownTom doesn’t go to those). I can get games to them early. I have time to argue with them when they write something I don’t agree with. I have staff who can post favorably in the comments about the game on their site. I can invite them to launch parties. I can find people for them to play online with.

These are just the simplest tools a big publisher has at their disposal to get what they want. They can also mobilise a community of committed customers to get what they want. The reviewer can be made to think twice about criticizing their games in the future.

And gamers fall for this every time. It’s important to note that publishers like EA and Activision are massive, international corporations and CalmDownTom is just me and some friends writing about games in our free time for no money. Despite this, when we reviewed multimillion dollar title Dead Space 3 poorly, an army of fans said we were a big media empire crushing the dreams of a small team of creative devs. That’s what Gamergate always get’s wrong: scale. They think they’re standing up to bullies, but really they’re breaking David’s legs so that Goliath can stomp on him more easily.

3. The Gamergate Problem: Games journos are trying to destroy “gamers”

Shortly after the Gamergate scandal broke and got really big, a number of similar articles went up from different writers about how the term “gamers” wasn’t a good one. As games become more accepted in mainstream culture, it was argued that the label of “gamer” was as reductive as calling someone a “booker” or “filmer”. Games were simply something for everyone now, and there’s so few “non-gamers” that the “gamer” term was meaningless.

Many self-identified “gamers” were mad about this, and it’s easy enough to see why. Gamers have been persecuted in mainstream news and media for a long long time now, and as a result they have become a bit defensive. These articles seemed to suggest that “gamers” no longer existed, or that calling yourself a “gamer” was wrong or shameful. Games were being blamed for violence and the break down of society, but now gamers were being erased completely! This was Jack Thomson all over again!

Only it wasn’t. None of the articles actually said this. Indeed they said completely the opposite: that games are a positive thing, that almost everyone plays them and playing games is the de facto norm. Gamers is people!

It’s almost as if the “gamers” who got mad didn’t actually read the articles. If you only read the titles of these articles, perhaps you could (intentionally or not) construe them to mean that “Gamers” shouldn’t exist. As in gamers: THE PEOPLE. I guess the gamers who disliked these articles thought they were arguing for the widespread evaporation of the actual individuals rather than the word.

So games journalists were trying to destroy gamers. LITERALLY. Or were they?

The Real Problem: Games journos are ashamed of what they do

Now I could have filled this article with “SOME Gamergate people” and “SOME journos” but it would make it a pain to read. Still, at this point I have to stress that SOME games journos are ashamed of what they do. Not all. But you can understand why they might feel that shame.

That’s because mainstream society is even less accepting of games writers than it is of “gamers”. Let me give you an example, and games journalists in the audience, hands up if this is you:

“So what do you do .”
“I, uh, well, I went to uni and studied journalism but now I cover, uh… new media and interactive uh… entertainment.”
*Blank looks*
“Games. I write about games.”
“Oh, you write games! My son play Minecrafts all the time. Can you write less addictive games so he has more time to study. HAHA!”
“Haha, no. I write ABOUT games. As a journalist.”
*Blank looks*
“Like I review them. I say if they are good or not.”
“Oh we do that too! But for our holidays. James wrote a 2 star review of this awful BnB in Ayr. James! Tell him about your review!”

So see, we don’t have a real job; in the eyes of the world at least. Even within our field, we’re at the bottom. Print journalists look down on web journalists (“Bloggers”) and all journalists look down on games journos. So we’re not exactly held in esteem by anyone, and as such, we all feel a bit ashamed. Or at least I do.

But I have a “real” job too though. That last sentence is evidence of how I feel about games journalism, isn’t it? My “real” job isn’t the games journalism one. It’s the one that, you know, actually pays me money and stuff.

So games journalism is poorly paid and located at the bottom of the professional writer social strata. No wonder we’re not exactly bathed in a glowing aura of pride and privilege.

So maybe that’s why we don’t like the term “gamer”. Maybe that’s why we don’t want to be trapped down this little cul de sac of journalism.

Or maybe, like I said before, gamer is just a really dumb term to use when it describes basically everyone.

4. The Gamergate Problem: There’s a feminist conspiracy amongst the big games websites.

I remember the first time I was invited to the Secret Social Justice Warriors meeting. When you start a new games website you get an invite the first time you critisize a women characters impractical, skimpy outfit.

When you first arrive you are forced to swear by the SJW code. It compels you to… I dunno, respect people and, uhhh treat the genders equally and….

Yeah, see that’s the problem. Even if there was a secret group of Social Justice Warriors, their goals would be so inane and equanimous that you’d have to be really weird to disagree with them.

That’s because Social Justice Warrior is, at least to any vaguely liberal, left leaning individual, quite a compliment. And as a funnier man than me said, “Reality has a well established liberal bias.”

Social Justice Warrior. I mean it literally means someone who fights for equality. It’s like a Fairness Ninja, or a Reason Ronin or a Balanced-and-Civil Discourse Knight.

Now if you’re using SJW as a synonym for self-aggrandizing or pretentious or overly pious or hypocritical writing then that’s fine. But you’re not using the right word. SJW is not a pejorative. You need a better term to describe the form of games writing you don’t like.

And if you ARE using SJW as an insult because you don’t believe in equality or tolerance, then you can (in a respectful and tolerant manner) fuck right off.

The Real Problem: Games websites hate each other

We hate each other. Well, not on an individual level, but at an organizational one. We are enemies.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate any games journalists. I’ve fallen out with people, but even those who I have completely disconnected from I still respect. Maybe we argued, maybe we will never be friends again, but I don’t think they are bad people and I respect them for what they do.

When it comes to the journalists I know and like, I tell them I want them to succeed. And I mean it.

But when they do succeed, I die inside. When I read something good, I feel pure hate. How dare they write something better than I can! How dare they steal an idea I have sat on for years without actually doing anything about! How dare they contact me and tell me they liked my work when there’s is so obviously better! They’re just rubbing it in my face now.

Writers are all competing for your attention and your time. We aren’t working together on a feminist conspiracy (or any other type) because we are too busy trying to beat each other. To write a better opinion piece. To be faster with the news. To get a bigger interview with a more famous dev.

We respect each other. We are sometimes friends. But we do not work together. When one of us fails the rest benefit. Gamergate people, how do you not understand that?

5. The Gamergate Problem: Games websites are colluding to delay reviews from favoured publishers with embargoes as an excuse

When a game is not good, games websites hide it from the game buying public. They pretend that an embargo is delaying the review, all the while raking in the money from the advertising campaigns they run. Their advertising is selling us a game that their review will tell us is bad, but it will be too late!

The Real Problem: Embargoes are essential because games writers are greedy and lazy.

Now on this one issue I may disagree wildly with my journo pals, but I think game embargoes are essential. Why? Because (some) game journos will rush a piece out the door to be the first published review. It will be poorly written and the reviewer won’t have played enough of the game to give a proper, well informed opinion. You’ll get a review based on the first two hours of the game and what the reviewer has read about it on Wikipedia. The review will be short on detail, and will gloss over any problems that would only be obvious to someone who had played the game for longer. They won’t have played the multiplayer at all (no one would be online to play with them) so they’ll have two sentences about it towards the end where they say “It shows promise but only time will tell if the community keep playing it after the first few weeks of release”. Yeah, when they say that they probably didn’t play it.

I’ve had a fair few arguments with writers about this. Most commonly, I am told that we are professionals and should be trusted and respected to take our own time with our work. Sadly, the evidence suggests that while many big sites are ok with holding back a review until the reviewer has had enough time with it, many others are happy to rush something out the door.

The pressure will always be there to rush a review because the rewards are great. But embargoes make sure a game gets a fair shot. And if you are upset that you need to wait until the day of release to decide whether or not to buy a game, what is wrong with you?

An no, you shouldn’t pre-order games ever. Obviously.

6. The Gamergate Problem: Games journos should be accountable to the same code of ethics as mainstream journalists and should keep politics out of reviews.

This one always makes me laugh. Gamergate quote: “We only want our games reviews to meet the same ethical standards as all other journalism. And we want all the politics OUT of games reviews.”

Setting aside the irony of demanding openness and honesty in criticism but also demanding the censure of social or political commentary, the above quote could only be made by someone who doesn’t read newspapers. If your goal is to make us as accountable and ethical as mainstream journalists, I have some REALLY good news for you.

The Real Problem: All journalism is political, and mainstream journalism is totally fucked.

Jesus, where to start. Probably here.

As you can see, much smarter people than me have written very eloquently on why almost everything you read in mainstream media is at best horribly conflicted, and at worst unfiltered advertising and corporate propaganda.

Did you watch that? If so, do you still want to tell me how games media doesn’t meet the standards set by mainstream media?

7. The Gamergate Problem: Games writers are dishonest and take money directly from publishers

I think we covered this above, but the allegation that WRITERS take money for favorable reviews is particularly flawed. Most especially, because even the most cynical writer should still feel a burning need to expose and write about institutional corruption. After all, every journalist wants to expose a new Watergate. That’s where the suffix of your movement comes from!

Of course writers aren’t the main instigators of corruption… but they can be the tools.

The Real Problem: Media conglomerates are dishonest and take money directly from advertisers

The one really big scandal in games journalism happened when a writer refused to change their review and was fired for it. You’d think that if writers were so corrupt there would be far more examples of this kind of thing, but the one time when there actually was an incident of corruption, THE WRITER was the one that stood up to the unethical behavior.

It was the site owners who were in the wrong. And the publishers of the game, but that’s to be expected.

Writers incomes don’t depend on advertising. They are paid a flat rate for their work, and their worth is determined purely by their integrity. No one will read a dishonest writer, so they have to be whiter than white. And quite right too.

Writers salary is dependent on their ethical conduct, but the owners of websites income depends on advertising revenue.

So if I was a website owner (I am), how would I make sure the advertisers were happy? Well I would select the reviewers that I knew would give the game that was being advertised the highest score. If I’m a good editor (I am), then I know who would probably give FIFA 2050 a 9 out of 10 and who would give it a 7. And even if the writer I chose didn’t give the game the score I wanted, I’d get another writer to do a second opinion then post both reviews.

IGN used to be bad for this (I think they stopped doing it). When they posted a review of a big game and gave it a bad score, they would almost always follow it with a “alternate opinion” piece where another reviewer would provide a far more positive spin on that same game. I’m not saying they are corrupt or they did it for nefarious reasons. I’m just saying that if I had to make sure a game got a good review no matter what, this might be a strategy I would use. If I was a dick.

8. The Gamergate Solution: Start a new games website with no politics, objective game reviews and no corruption

If there’s one thing that makes us games journos laugh (other than the sexual orgies we are all supposed to be involved in), then the new websites created by the Gamergate movement do the trick. On the surface it’s a great idea. If you’re not happy with games websites as they are, why not make new ones!?

The problem is that literally hundreds of games websites are made every day. It is very easy to make a website. I mean my gran has one.

She doesn’t, I just lied about that.

But if someone called me out on that lie, I could show her how to make one in an hour then it wouldn’t be a lie any more. It’s that easy.

Fucking EVERYONE has a website. Websites are not hard to make, but they are hard to maintain. And it’s hard to build an audience. You do that by being better than everyone else. By working harder. By pushing yourself and your team to be the best. CalmDownTom isn’t popular because I made it, it’s popular because I (and my team) keep making it every day.

And if you’re going to write about games AND be successful AND avoid all politics AND make your reviews “objective”… Well good luck. I mean, I don’t think you actually know what objective means. An objective review makes as much sense as a retrospective weather forecast.

And while I’m ranting, can all of you “aspiring writers” please update your Twitter bios. “Aspiring Writer” should be spelled “Lazy Prick”.

The Real Solution: Start your own website, see how many people visit.

Don’t make a website free of politics. Tells us what you think. Maybe we won’t like it, but at least you’ll be honest. Don’t be “objective”. Be subjective. Be critical. Write as well as you can. Write better than me. Write something better than this. Write and write and write until everyone you hate is drowned in a sea of your prose, all of which is more insightful, more engaging and more honest than theirs. If you want to “win” then there’s only one way to do that. Don’t try to silence people you don’t like. Don’t threaten them or harass them. Don’t try to scare their advertisers, don’t make fake Twitter accounts and don’t launch complex, devious schemes to make people look bad.

Be the best YOU can be.

Be the kind of writer you want to read.

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