Sunday, January 3, 2016

Examining Gamergate: On Corruption

A few months ago an old friend of mine started posting about Gamergate. Gamergate hasn't been in the news as much lately, though maybe I only think that because I've personally been avoiding it as much as possible. Regardless, this was clearly something my friend was passionate about, so we started talking.

I generally try to avoid seeing another group as an "other." For opponents of Gamergate, the rule of thumb was "do not engage," as if its proponents are not worth your time. I don't like to think of people that way, especially friends, so I broke the rule. I engaged, and my friend provided me with tons of reading material to show me what he's talking about.

I've since read a lot, thought a lot, and examined this issue for the sake of my friend. Here's what I've found:

The concerns of Gamergate, as far as I can tell, amount to these primary issues within gaming journalism:
  1. Corruption: reviewers granting positive reviews to friends without informing the public of their connection.
  2. Conspiracy: gaming journalists discussing issues among themselves to decide how to frame a discussion.
  3. Cronyism: Dissenting voices are silenced and/or removed from power.
I'll address each point, starting with the first since that one goes all the way back to the beginning of the movement:



The beginnings of Gamergate find their roots in a series of posts by the jilted ex-boyfriend of game designer Zoe Quinn. I understand that discussions about ethics in games journalism likely existed before this, but the Quinn incident was the rallying point that brought the movement into focus. Opponents of the Gamergate movement see this incident primarily as a defamation campaign against Zoe, while proponents seem to see this as indicative of a larger problem, of which Zoe is a fairly insignificant part. They often refer to her as "Literally Who," I believe, in order to emphasize her insignificance, though really that tactic just makes her a Voldemort figure. Appropriate, I think, since dwelling on the harassment Zoe faced after this incident does much to undermine Gamergate's current stated goals.

Setting aside the charges of harassment (which are not insignificant, but will for the sake of discussion be attributed to extremists), the proponents of Gamergate find the core issue of the Quinn incident to be that a reviewer gave Zoe Quinn's game a positive review, supposedly in exchange for sexual favors. As far as I can tell, there's no evidence to back up that accusation other than the word of the previously mentioned jilted lover. Also, the game in question is a free game, so it would hardly be an effective profiteering scheme. Also, the positive review in question doesn't seem to exist, though I'm sure conspiracy theorists would claim that the review was taken down in light of the scandal.

Regardless, whether that scandal is founded in truth or not, I have no doubt that there are many game reviewers out there who review games made by their friends. Is this a problem?

I don't think it is. And here's why:

The gaming development community is not large. If you become a notable person in that community, you will meet with lots of journalists and developers, whether at parties or convention spaces or wherever. This isn't just inevitable; it's important. These are the connections that lead to exclusive interviews, early access to games for review, and breaking development news.

Complications arise at the issue of integrity, however. If a reviewer has to review a game for a friend and the game is bad, will they have the integrity to review honestly, even if it may cost them a friendship? Likewise, will a developer sacrifice a friendship over a brutally honest review? It's hard to say. In this case, it's the integrity of the reviewer that's most important, since they have more responsibility to their audience than to the developer.

It gets even more complicated and concerning when there's money involved. Many gaming websites are funded by ad revenue, usually from gaming companies advertising their next game. But what happens when the advertised game is bad? Does the reviewer pad the review score in order to keep the lights on? Or, if the review is honest, does the publisher pull their funding and threaten to never advertise on their site again? These are real concerns and tough decisions, and it's not always clear which reviewers and developers have the integrity to allow the truth to come out.

Here's the thing, though: journalists live or die on the basis of their integrity. It's their most important marketable asset, and the thing that helps them stand apart from other journalists. So, if their integrity ever takes a hit, that's it. That's their job. If nobody trusts them, then nobody will pay attention to them, and if nobody is paying attention to them, then they don't get paid. Most journalists understand this, and the ones that don't generally don't last long.

So, it's important to understand that, yes, a reviewer may well know and be friends with the developer of a game they're reviewing. Given that, the audience needs to ask themselves: do they trust the reviewer to give them an honest review? Integrity is determined by the audience. If you trust the reviewer, keep reading their reviews. If you don't, stop reading and don't even click on the links to their articles. The market will correct itself.

On a related note, shortly after Gamergate arose I repeatedly heard a call for "objective" game reviews. However, if we're taking the stance that video games are art, then it's important to note that art is inherently subjective. As such, there is no such thing as an "objective" game review. Disagreeing with a reviewer is okay, and it has nothing to do with that reviewer's integrity. You may simply have different tastes.

Anyway, on a positive note, disclosure is a legitimate concern, and it seems as though many journalists are trying to do better in that regard. Many reviews these days, especially positive reviews, will note at the end of the review the reviewer's relationship to the developer and how they acquired their copy of the game for review.

Otherwise, the relationship between the press and developers continues to be a complicated thing, but I don't believe corruption to be an epidemic. Perhaps I'm just naive, but I generally trust people to have integrity until proven otherwise. That's where I stand regarding Gamergate's charges of corruption among game journalists.

This topic has already become lengthy, so I'll give my thoughts on the charges of conspiracy and  corruption in the future.

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