L. Rhodes


To Fair-Minded Proponents of GamerGate

The following open letter was written during the initial weeks of the hostile and amorphous mob action that participants called (and, to some extent, still call) GamerGate. Originally published on Medium, where it had a circulation of over 90,000 views – attention that is disproportionate to my actual importance in the events the letter addresses. I preserve it here in part because the text still attracts attention, and as a relatively early document of a phenomenon that would eventually outstrip its origins in the videogame community to influence politics at the national level.

Originally published at medium.com/@lrhodes/to-fair-minded-proponents-of-gamergate-7f3ce77301bb

A few nights ago, I spent several hours on Twitter asking questions and patiently reading the answers from a dozen or so of your fellow gamers. I had already read a fair amount about #GamerGate and the events surrounding it, but I wanted to get a clearer sense of what it means to the people who were promoting the tag. I endeavored to be as fair-minded about it as I knew how. Now that I’m determined to respond (after a day of debating with myself whether or not it was worth doing so), I hope you’ll give the same consideration to what I have to say.

To whom am I speaking? I should specify, shouldn’t I? After all, as the gamers I talked to on Tuesday made it clear, there are a great many people involved, and not all of them see entirely eye-to-eye. In general, though, those of you who were patient enough to answer my questions seemed to agree on three broad points:

  1. That you see the word gamer as a valuable way to identify yourself;
  2. That you are dismayed with what you see as corruption in the gaming press; and
  3. That you are opposed to exclusion — and, therefore, to harassment.

That last item is an important distinction. While nearly everyone I spoke to last night insisted on that point, not everyone has taken the same approach. Others have struck upon harassment as a handy tool for achieving their goals. We’ll get back to them in a moment, but for now I want to specifically address those who sincerely want #GamerGate to be about inclusion, not exclusion.

With nearly every gamer I spoke to, I started out by asking, “What do you see as the overarching goal of #GamerGate?” When, as was often the case, you answered “corruption,” I made a point of following up by asking what practices you had in mind. And it’s there, in your answers to that question, that I could see the goals and imperatives of your activism begin to diverge. Some asked only for more prominent disclaimers whenever a writer had a potential conflict of interest. Others argued that disclaimers weren’t enough, and that writers ought to be recused whenever a relationship might be thought to go beyond the bounds of the professional. Still others felt that developers were capable of exerting too much financial pressure over the gaming press. Even while arguing that #GamerGate was not primarily about the accusations of a certain ex-boyfriend, yet others seemed primarily concerned that sexual relationships with developers had a rampant and undue influence on how writers report on games.

Regardless of which of those concerns you raised, many of you made the point that the gaming press generally does not adhere to traditional journalistic standards. You have a point. “The standard should be higher,” you told me. I’m inclined to agree.

There are, however, significant distinctions that need to be made, and virtually no one I spoke to made them. More than once, I was pointed to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics or the “10 Absolutes of Reuters Journalism” as a baseline for reform. Some of the standards we find in those are applicable across the board — bans on plagiarism, for example. Others are not.

To understand why, it’s necessary to acknowledge another distinction. Those codes were written primarily to uphold the reliability of news reportage, but not everything published in the gaming press is news reportage. Even stories that look like news aren’t always news. That’s because, historically, games journalism grew out of what’s called the enthusiast press — meaning that it was (and still is) written primarily by gaming enthusiasts, for other gaming enthusiasts.

It’s possible to see that distinction a bit more clearly if you compare the way games have traditionally been written about in a venue like, say, the New York Times, versus the way they’re usually covered in gaming magazines. Even when they aren’t being downright skeptical, non-enthusiast publishers tend to be at least agnostic about the value of games in general. When you write for an enthusiast press, though, you’ve already thrown out some measure of objectivity, since it’s assumed that you and your reader already agree that games are worth your time, money and interest.

Its origins as an enthusiast press have left a deep impress on the industry. A current events reporter for Reuters may sneak into a war zone to get the unvarnished truth, but that isn’t how enthusiast presses work. They rely for most of their information on the companies whose products they cover. Most of the news stories you read on your favorite gaming site are based on press releases. The interviews wouldn’t be possible if the site hadn’t maintained an amicable relationship with the publisher. The juicy tidbits that weren’t meant to be revealed so early are typically the result of writers and developers chumming it up at expos and conferences.

“Corruption” probably isn’t the right word for all of that. It isn’t like gaming magazines and sites started out with the standards endorsed by the SPJ and Reuters, but lost sight of their values over time. All along, chumminess with the makers of video games has been the cost of access to the information you’ve demanded as a gamer. That isn’t a recent development, and if you’ve been supporting the gaming press up until now, then you’ve been complicit in supporting those relationship, whether you realized it or not.

And if you really think it through, you probably don’t want that to change entirely. After all, as gamers — which is to say, as enthusiasts — most of us enjoy the anticipation that’s created when a gaming site reports what they’ve learned about an upcoming release, even when that report is based on a press release. You cannot avoid or dissolve the relationships that make those reports possible, save at the cost of losing that coverage.

All the same, some gaming publications have, over the last several years, made a concerted effort to include more investigative journalism. You can usually distinguish it from news based on press releases by the fact that investigative journalism usually makes someone look bad. Which is how we should want it — that freedom to make someone look bad when they’ve done bad is what the codes and standards you pointed me to were written to protect. If you want that sort of coverage (and ask youself, do I want it? — maybe you don’t) then it makes sense to insist on more traditional journalistic standards. But because this is still a relatively new approach for the gaming press, doing so is less about decrying corruption than it is about encouraging the industry to grow.

Growth will mean insisting upon the distinction between serious investigative journalism and the sort of enthusiast reporting that has traditionally passed for gaming news. If you’re promoting #GamerGate because you like the way the gaming press covered games before writers starting investigating topics like labor exploitation and the gender divide, then you may want to stop insisting on higher journalistic standards. If those standards are important to you, then you’ll have to tolerate those sorts of articles, even when you don’t like the light they cast on gaming. As William Randolph Hearst famously said, “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.”

The same goes for the third tier (after enthusiast and investigative reporting) of the gaming press: criticism. As much as, or maybe even more than, reporting, many of you told me that you wanted to ensure that game reviews remain objective. Depending on what you mean by “objective,” that may not be possible, but I think we can all agree that, at the very least, reviews should be relatively unbiased by the author’s relationship to the people or companies whose games they review.

At the same time, many of you told me that you wanted to see less social criticism in those reviews. If you really think that through, you’ll see that you can’t have it both ways. There’s a deep contradiction imbedded in the notion that, on the one hand, writers shouldn’t be beholden to developers when they review a game, and that, on the other hand, they should avoid criticisms they feel are relevant. Most game publishers don’t want to be criticized for the social prejudices they may have worked into their games. As such, the simple fact that a writer or editor would be willing to publish a social criticism ought to be treated as evidence that the venue is maintaining some independence from the industry on which it reports. Even when it doesn’t interest you, even when you disagree with what’s been said— even if, as some of you expressed, you feel personally affronted on the game’s behalf — you ought to welcome such criticism as a check on the sort of cozy developer/press relationship you’ve called corrupt.

Which is just as well, since those of you who answered my questions on Twitter couldn’t point me to a really viable plan for effecting change. After “what do you hope to achieve,” the question I asked most was, “How do you intend to achieve it?” Some of you seemed to think that the social media campaign would be enough to shame publishers into adopting your standards. It’s possible that, at least for the time being, we’ll see more disclaimers pointing out potential conflicts of interest, but beyond that, I wouldn’t expect much voluntary action on the part of publishers. They themselves may want to see more serious journalism, but their bread and butter is still the enthusiast tier of the industry. They mostly cannot afford to cut ties with the companies on which they report.

“So we’ll force their hands,” some of you told me. You suggested boycotting outlets that didn’t adopt your standards. But there’s a serious chicken-and-egg problem with that plan. After all, the point is to increase transparency, but how can you know which outlets to boycott unless they’re already being transparent about those relationships? Some suggested an independent review board tasked with ensuring transparency, without any real plan for funding it or making its pronouncements enforceable. Without some means of forcing recalcitrant outlets to make their relationships more transparent, the only viable way to decide who gets boycotted is the shotgun approach. But to send an effective message, a boycott must be narrowly targeted. The nature of your complaint makes that practically impossible.

Beyond which, the probability is that all of your favored outlets have those relationships. Even gaming news sites that don’t have direct relationships are indirectly dependent on them, since their coverage is largely aggregated from the sites that do. And, anyway, as I noted earlier, #GamerGate proponents have diverse ideas as to what’s inappropriate.

The best suggestion I’ve seen so far, in fact, is simply, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Some gamers are looking at the possibility of starting their own news and review site. Insofar as that gives you the opportunity to put your standards into practice, that’s a project you should actively support. For reasons that I’ve spelled out in detail above, it will likely be much more difficult than you expect, but it is, right now, your best hope of achieving something with the momentum you’ve amassed.

There is, as it happens, one group using the #GamerGate hashtag that has figured out an effective plan for changing the gaming press. Their method is continual harassment. They hurl invective, issue threats, expose sensitive information (like bank account numbers) and generally work to intimidate writers out of the business of printing something somebody doesn’t like. Typically, they target individuals rather than institutions, especially those with relatively small support systems, like financially vulnerable freelancers and independent developers, or non-commercial blogs sustained by reader donations rather than ad revenue.

That isn’t news to you, of course. You were quick to disavow that sort of exclusion. #GamerGate, you told me, is about inclusion. That’s part of why you placed so much value on the term gamer, and why you were so frustrated at the recent spate of articles suggesting that the gamer identity is dead or dying. Gaming had connected you with a community where you felt accepted, and to have that repudiated felt like another form of exclusion.

If the sheer fact that they’re using your name to harass other gamers isn’t enough to motivate you, then maybe recognizing how they’ve worked to undermine your goals will. The fact of the matter is that some of the people they’ve driven away are people who have spent years working to transform the gaming press from an enthusiast press to a more properly journalistic industry. They’ve done so by daring to say and print things that games developers don’t necessarily want them to say. They’ve fought to make gaming more inclusive for people who have generally felt excluded. They are, in other words, deeply allied to the causes you’ve espoused, and they’re being targeted because, against all odds, they’ve managed to gain ground. You can’t afford not to rally to their defense because you can’t afford to see them give up.

It is, at any rate, imperative that you recognize not only that others are using #GamerGate to do exactly the things you claim to revile, but also that they’ve been more effective at achieving their goals than you’ve been at achieving yours. That, in no small part, is why you’re all being lumped together. You may think that you represent #GamerGate more truly than the harassers, but the public can’t help but see successful attacks as a kind of ownership. That may be unfair, but you’d be foolish to ignore it. At this point, the harassers have done so much damage that your best recourse may be to simply abandon the #GamerGate umbrella altogether, in favor of a rallying call that’s harder to co-opt. Every time they successfully run someone out of their home or damage the reputation of a potential ally, they take a stronger hold on the names under which you’ve rallied, and you lose a little bit more.

You lose because it gets harder to espouse your cause when people associate it with harassment and misogyny. You lose because the number of people actively working to make the press more reliable and gaming more inclusive dwindles a little more. You lose because more people feel excluded from gaming. You lose, most of all, because hate takes a greater share of the world.

I sincerely hope you get it figured out.