Everybody loves game journalism

I wrote and rewrote the following post pretty much daily over the course of the past few weeks in response to the ugliness happening around video games and women in video games. I finally gave up toward the end of this past week, because I could never find a way to discuss all of this that didn’t seem like it was all about me me me when it all had absolutely nothing to do with me. When Jenn Frank, of all damn people, probably the most heartbreakingly honest writer in the gaming press, was hounded and harassed for supposed corruption of all damn things, I lost the stomach to write about this at all. Or, frankly, to write about the games industry. When I told my wife what had happened to Jenn (whom she knew from the time a few years back when we had over to our place to take part in a disastrous-but-fun 1UP-centric dinner party), she simply started sending me job listings for “less toxic” lines of work. I found her response depressing, but honestly gave it some consideration for a day or two. (I got over it.)

With Zöe Quinn’s Batman-like — or rather, Oracle-like, in a DC universe where Barbara Gordon is forever allowed to define her identity on her own terms than as a sub-franchise of a male hero — exposé of the culprits behind all this crap, the conversation has shifted so radically I’d need to completely rewrite this to make the still-relevant parts feel relevant. Frankly, I’m tired of looking at this wall of text, so I’m just posting the most recent revision (from Wednesday) behind the jump cut in its entirety: A chunk of text vomited from the what-ifs of the Internet. You can pick out the parts that remain relevant, if you like, or you can just ignore it.

(Cliff’s Notes version: That would be the parts about the folly of painting the general gaming audience with too broad a brush because of the actions of a few, and the ethics of crowd-funding.)

Oh, also, I started supporting Quinn on Patreon after she came under attack by anonymous abusers out of sympathy. Now I’m supporting her on Patreon because she basically blew up the Death Star right as the technician in the glossy underbite helmet activated the final turbo laser lever. In any case, I’ve still never met her, still never written about her (outside of this post), and still never will.

Also of note: Since penning the text below, I’ve written about Mighty No. 9, which I helped crowd-fund, with the basic premise of the piece being, “I Kickstarted this game and I’m liking the way it’s shaping up.” I’ve also just backed Tetropolis, a game I wrote about at PAX East and would very much like to play, though sadly it doesn’t look likely to make its goals. If that constitutes corruption, friends, this whole species is going to Hell.

“Everybody loves game journalism.”

Just kidding. Nobody loves games journalism, or games journalists.

I wrote this post last week, back when this was such a hot topic that it was selling Jack Skellington T-shirts on the side, but I was busy traveling up and down the West Coast to visit a bunch of publishers and PR folks to collect this quarter’s money hats so I wanted to sit and mull this over until I was free of the tyranny of jet lag and a non-stop travel schedule. I’ve seen my name pop up a few times (thanks, Google Alerts) in relation to the latest games journalism scandal — which actually isn’t a scandal so much as a free-for-all shouting match, and only sort of has to do with games journalism — so I might as well contribute to the din a bit.

I keep seeing the abuse that’s been heaped upon women like Zöe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian referred to as “terrorism,” which sadly is true in the literal dictionary sense of the word in a handful of more extreme cases. And, as often happens with terrorism, the response has involved a lot of broad-strokes rhetoric and indiscriminate retaliatory bombing. The lamentations about the awfulness of gamers and game culture (whatever that is) is like a nerdier version of the political posturing that preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2002. To my knowledge, gaming’s ombudsmen don’t have any military hardware lined up to mobilize into gamer culture (I think it’s all tied up in Ferguson at the moment), but the declamations, the generalizations, and the tone of righteous indignation are much the same. A few thousand — or is it a few hundred? — creeps out of a group containing millions are being allowed to color the perception of those millions. This, from many of the same people who bristle when the mainstream media employs the same rhetoric about the same group.

And they’re not entirely wrong; the vileness that’s bubbled to the surface over the past few weeks are the result of problems that exist at the system level. Not just the system that creates games, either, but the broader system that props up culture and pop culture alike. Still, the overwhelming majority of people within that system manage not to degenerate into gynophobic monsters who terrify women out of their homes for saying, “Maybe it would be good if women were treated with respect,” so cheers to the fundamentally indefatigable decency of human nature and all that. The awful voices are loud, but they’re a minority, and I hate that they’re being met with equally strident rhetoric. If game enthusiasts didn’t already hate the gaming press, they certainly do now that they’ve been unilaterally lumped into the same group as a handful of noisy hatemongers.

I’ve stayed out of the conversation over the past couple of weeks, not because I don’t care, but because nothing I could say could accomplish anything positive. No one’s minds are going to be changed about anything by any words I could write on such a vast and emotional issue. Instead, I’ve been doing the same thing I’ve taken to doing lately when people are turned into Internet punching bags: Offering quiet support. In the case of Quinn, I decided to start contributing to her Patreon after all this nonsense began. Unfortunately, the fact that some people in the press are backing Quinn helped precipitate the anti-Quinn contingent’s decision to turn this whole thing into a discussion of game journalism ethics. Of course, in some cases, the question of game journalism ethics is simply an excuse for less savory behavior, so the whole thing is depressingly muddy and has only increased the amount of shouting involved.

One thing to emerge from all of this is the question of whether or not it’s acceptable or appropriate for members of the games press to support game developers through crowd funding ventures like Kickstarter and Patreon. Kotaku responded by taking a scorched-earth approach that forbids their writers from having anything to do with games-related crowd funding. I have a lot of respect for Kotaku EIC Stephen Totilo, but after giving it a few days’ thought, I just can’t agree with that decision at all.

I actually wrestled publicly with the same question a year ago when I hosted the PAX panel in which Keiji Inafune announced Mighty No. 9, a game I intended to Kickstart for several hundred dollars. (I ended up dialing it down to a much lower amount, so my pledge basically amounted to a preorder of the game and an art book; I opted not to participate materially in the game’s design.) Given my — unwitting! — involvement in the game’s announcement and my financial commitment to it, I mused, would it be improper for me to write about Mighty No. 9, even though, no offense to any of them, no one on USgamer’s staff knows the Mega Man series on which MN9 is based anywhere near as well as I do? Ideally, you want the best-qualified person reviewing a game, but at what point does that enthusiasm become a disqualifier?

It’s a weird situation. Crowd-funding makes you a participant in the creation of a work, but at the same time you have no stake in the finished product aside from declaring whether or not you got your money’s worth. You’re not going to reap dividends from the completed project (as Oculus Rift backers discovered to their chagrin when Facebook made Oculus very, very wealthy, but Oculus backers got bupkis); basically, you’re putting your payment up front as a sort of stake to help ensure the product is created, and then you get your product and rewards, and that’s it. Still, it is participatory, even if it’s mostly in a symbolic way.

For me, crowd-funding has largely replaced my former habits as a consumer. I used to buy every game that came down the pipeline if it vaguely interested me, out of a feeling of obligation to keep the B-tier of the medium thriving. If I supported the games I believed in with my wallet, I reasoned, even if I never intended to play them, publishers would continue to make them — right? Obviously, that turned out to be a complete fallacy; the kinds of games I truly love have largely dried up and vanished outside of the indie space, so it turns out I spent thousands of dollars on games I never had time to play for no reason. But Kickstarter and Indiegogo and Patreon are different — if people like me put money there, those kinds of games will be made. Probably. It’s a sure thing, provided you pledge for trustworthy people and the campaign in question makes its goal. I see crowd-funding simply as a way to support niche content that interests me in a far more effective fashion than in the past.

As for Patreon in particular, that’s something I’ve only begun contributing to since launching my own Patreon campaign a couple of months ago. Because a bunch of generous people have been supporting me as I try to create articles and videos about video games that are entirely too niche to justify for my day job — seriously, if I tried to run a comprehensive chronology of Game Boy releases in text and video form at USgamer, I’d be out of work in no time flat — I feel a strong moral obligation to pay it forward and use some of those contributions to support other independent content creators in turn. But since I work in the press, some people question whether or not I’m somehow compromised by these things.

Personally, I disagree with that notion. I mean, I backed both Discord Games’ Chasm and Gamesbymo’s A.N.N.E. for the price of a preorder, because both were games that immediately struck a chord with me, and I wanted to play them. A.N.N.E. is basically The Guardian Legend. I am pretty sure I name-drop The Guardian Legend more than any other person in the gaming press (I did it in last week’s USgamer cover story, for god’s sake), so the opportunity to play a contemporary take on the concept really appealed to me.

Because I backed these games, I won’t be reviewing them, even though I am extraordinarily well-suited to take a critical look at both and discuss their respective successes or failures. But I did write about them at PAX East, under the auspices of a preview article where I said, “I backed these games — how are they shaping up?” Is it a conflict of interest to write about a game I eagerly await simply because I paid for it (speculatively) in advance, especially if I state up-front that I’d done so in my write-up? I’ve always done my best to be aboveboard with everything I do professionally, and this is no different.

My Kickstarter history and Patreon pledges are no secret — anyone can view those pages. I’ve written about a few of the games I’ve backed, but I’ve always tried to be completely open about my support up-front. I haven’t reviewed any of those games, and I never will. I’ll never write professionally about the people and projects I support on Patreon, either.

That mention of Patreon brings us back to the Quinn incident, because a few people spotted my pledge and read something sinister into it (even though I made the pledge in response to those people’s actions). Honestly, I don’t know the woman; we’ve never even met. I don’t run in the hip indie game circles and have zero interest in doing so. Having officially reached middle-age at this point I’m much more interested in tracking down Japanese guys my own age who worked on old games no one else cares about than in the younger man’s game that is keeping up with the new wave of game developers; that’s for the young folks on USgamer’s staff to do. I’ve never played the game Quinn created, and to be completely honest I probably never will — the subject matter sounds too intense for my escapist tastes and covers a topic I’ve seen way too much of in real life to find entertainment in. I’ve never written about Quinn’s work, and I don’t foresee myself doing so at any point in the future. I simply saw a creator whose life was, by all reasonable accounts, unfairly torn apart by a group of strangers and felt that backing that person’s work would be a good and moral thing to do. I know how encouraging it can be when people support me, and wanted to give someone else that same positivity. I intend to contribute to other Patreons, too, as the occasion warrants — other people whose work I like, or just people whom I feel deserve support in general. I only started using Patreon a short while ago, and I’ve slowly been adding to my portfolio of causes, one or two per month.

Of course, these motives and thought processes don’t appear on my Patreon history page, as Google Alerts made me realize when people started posting all kinds of exotic conspiracy theories about my history with Quinn (which they don’t seem to realize begins and ends with “I have heard of her game Depression Quest and saw her mentioned an awful lot on Twitter over the past few weeks”). I want to avoid appearance of impropriety, but at the same time I’m someone whose own passion projects are only possible because people support me, be it via Patreon or last year’s Retronauts Kickstarter or even the old-school days of a “donate” button on this blog.

I’ve always felt that I have a serious obligation to reciprocate that support, and Patreon is simply the latest means for doing so. It used to take the form of an Amazon Payments link or simply buying things from people’s personal web stores; I own a hefty stack of self-published webcomic collections I don’t really care about anymore as a result of this habit. And I want to continue funding projects that interest me on Kickstarter, even if that means I don’t get to review them. Given a choice between “helping make intriguing games possible and not being able to review them due to the appearance of conflict of interest” or “never helping make intriguing games possible and not being able to review them because the project went un-funded,” the former seems a lot more appealing.

In my experience, people can compartmentalize their lives between “work” and “personal.” As long as a writer is transparent about it all, no ethics have been injured. I love the work I do, but I also hold a strong moral conviction to do my part to help support others in the way that I’ve been supported through the years. I feel I shouldn’t have to choose between “making a living” or “being able to live with myself.” Though so far my employers have made no official stance on all of this. If they say, “Put the kibosh on it,” I’ll make a decision, but I hope it doesn’t come to that. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, you know? As a philosopher once said, only Sith deal in absolutes.

14 thoughts on “Everybody loves game journalism

  1. This whole thing makes me ill. Jenn, of all people! Ugh.

    Good post though. You may not think highly of your own take on the matter, but a lot of us do. I’ve always enjoyed your articles and posts. Keep it up Jeremy!

    • Oh, it was a fine blog post. It just wasn’t appropriate to the situation. Much too self-involved.

  2. As TB pointed out recently, a lot of the discomfort people feel is related to how much hype the media creates about upcoming games, despite not knowing nearly nothing about the quality of the final product. Whether it’s paid directly, with perks, or with page views, it just ends up as a general bad feeling towards the media.

    As to Depression Quest, it seemed a great game when it was a web game, although it hit home too much for me. That should be all that matters, unless there’s some douche promoting prejudices with the money it makes.

    • There’s truth to that. But realize that from the media’s perspective what we see is that if we write a critical preview or review of an anticipated game, we take far more flack from readers than from publishers/PR/developers. You could see it over the past week at NeoGAF, where people were posting in one thread demanding more honest, critical opinions from the press… while one thread over people were calling for IGN’s head for saying, “The Order 1886 looks pretty iffy.” They probably weren’t the same people, but when a writer comes under attack for doing their job and relaying their opinion, the last thing they want to do is pick through threads of hatred and insults to cross-compare who’s saying what where. Just as it’s easy for readers to conflate all media as one homogenous mass, it’s hard for the press not to look at these contradictory responses (be more critical! don’t you dare be critical!) and see it as one mob of hateful readers out to get them no matter what they do. There needs to be a general chilling out on both sides, because a handful of rabble-raisers managed to turn this tension into an all-out war.

      • Yeah, I don’t know that the solution is. Gaming journalism got in the digital world in a really bad way by targeting the wrong audience, and good luck making it a nice thing again. I wouldn’t mind a site that had critical reviews when their heads had something interesting to say, but that wouldn’t make any money, so to the small old web forums I go for interesting content.

        Also, for maintaining my sanity about something that is a hobby, I ignore whatever is the hotness of the moment and look at reviews a while later, while reading a few more in depth articles like what you write. Unless it’s an indie away from all this, then I might even look at previews or kickstarter.

        I’m sorry about not really commenting on the issue at hand, but it looks like it’s just more drama from some jerks in the Internet, and that is is a big reason I don’t care about social media. I hope the victims get out somewhat ok out of this.

        Also, good luck on the good fight.

  3. These harassment campaigns always get me upset, but it was particularly upsetting to see Jenn Frank dragged into the fray since I was familiar with her work. When she said she would quit writing about games, my first thought was “she’ll be better off.” Nothing is worth having to swallow that much shit for.

    At the end of the day it’s just nerds looking for a way to put down other nerds, which always makes me a little sad.

    P.S. the hot topic line was amazing and corny and will haunt me always.

  4. I’m curious as to how games journalism will be “cleaned up” when readers assume we’re part of some massive conspiracy anyway. If I give a game a good review, I’m in someone’s pocket. If I give a game a bad review that’s *obviously* the most brilliant release of the year, I’m fishing for clicks.

    It’s not to say there aren’t issues, and vigilance re: the press is both necessary and noble, but I don’t think a lot of people realise how mundane most of it is.

  5. (But yeah, Jenn leaving really cast a dark shadow over this household. I did spot someone on Reddit sneering about how Jenn got paid to write while the Redditor had to “work [their] ass off day in and day out.” I believe at least a percentage of the rage comes from people that hate their jobs, but what else is new in the world.)

  6. Thanks for this, Jeremy. Sorry if I get long-winded here.

    When I was a kid, my dream job was to be an astronaut. It seemed the most fun job in the world, where every day would be an adventure. Of course, growing up with bad eyesight and being lousy at any physical activity, I realized that was an unrealistic goal. From about the age of 18, if anyone asked what my dream job was, I would’ve said video game critic. I never seriously pursued it and don’t have the writing talent or creativity to write anything consistently interesting, but deep down, if I could have pointed to any career as the most fun, that would’ve been it.

    I’m 35 years old now, and I realize there’s no such thing as a “dream job.” No matter how fulfilling, every career has its frustrations, and even astronauts have to deal with assholes sometimes. I understand this intellectually, and it’s part of growing up. However, I never actually thought of games journalism as not only not the most fun job, but as a career someone might actually want to avoid or consider dropping, until this week. No one deserves to be harassed for their work, and I would hate to feel targeted (as I think journalists were) at my job.

    As Jeremy said, a few jerks can put a bad face on a whole group. I hope that Jeremy, Jenn, Nadia (assuming you’re the writer I think you are!) and anyone else involved in games journalism realizes how much your readers appreciate you. Interesting, entertaining, and thought-provoking writing will always be valuable, no matter the medium or topic. I don’t judge the quality of an article by how much I agree with it – I can’t think of anyone whose tastes align exactly to mine – but I’m willing to read quality writing even about genres I couldn’t care less about. That seems natural, and I’d like to believe most people do the same.

    My opinion on transparency is similar to Jeremy’s. I think people should try to avoid reviewing products that they contributed to or in cases where close acquaintances worked on the product. When they do write about such a product, they should simply disclose the nature of their support, as Jeremy has all along for Mighty No. 9. That said, I could imagine how kickstarting a game would actually make a reviewer more critical, since they might have higher expectations and no stake in the success of the game (as Occulus showed, kickstarting is very different from investing). Furthermore, a person who shows enough interest in a crowdfunded project is probably so enthusiastic about the genre (for example, a space sim fan donating to Star Citizen) that they’re exactly the reviewer whose opinion I’d like to hear.

    Not to get political, but the whole “controversy” reminds me of the time that Keith Olbermann was suspended from MSNBC for donating to 3 congressional campaigns in hotly-contested districts. One of the donations went to Gabrielle Giffords. I thought that was ridiculous at the time: as an adult, he was entitled to donate his own personal funds to whoever he wanted (it’s not like his opponents could claim objectivity). Similarly, in the case of games journalists: of course you have opinions – they’re what make you interesting and expressing them is your job! As long as you’re up-front about it, who has the right to prevent you from donating to projects you believe in?

    Again, sorry for the excessively long post. Maybe I should’ve just said (to quote The Handmaid’s Tale, among other places I’m sure), “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

  7. Assuming it isn’t all pure astroturfing, I’m still baffled by the whole notion that it’s somehow scandalous for someone to financially support a game they are reviewing. I mean, there’s only 4 ways to go here:
    1- I pay for your game so I can play it and write a review.
    2- You give me a free copy of your game so I can play it and write a review.
    3- I steal a copy of your game so I can play it and write a review.
    4- I totally BS my way through a review of your game without having played it.

    That’s pretty much my list in descending order of ethicality. Does anyone out there actually disagree?

  8. Fact about video games: It’s a hobby that lots of terribly lonely, unhappy people pursue. It’s relatively inexpensive and something you can do completely in the privacy of your own home.

    There are a lot of desperately unhappy, lonely people in our society. Video games, and the online forums devoted to them, are like flypaper for many of them.

    That’s not to excuse conduct which is pretty horrifying and in at least some cases criminal. But there are root causes of the nastiness, the bile, and the misogyny, and those things will all persist in different ways. I just have no idea what to do about it.

  9. Long, rambly, a little painful and a lot tragic.
    I hope it was cathartic. It was worth the slow read. And thanks.

  10. I’m in the same boat as you, where I have no idea who any of these people are but am quite horrified. Unfortunately online harassment and hate campaigns can happen around any type of journalism though. I was reminded of the blow up when Rolling Stone dared to put Tsarnaev or whatever his name was on the cover. Labeling him a “monster” on the same cover wasn’t good enough, because their political enemies saw an exploitable weakness and attacked it with every bit of vitriol they had.

    At the same time, my personal reaction has been that I need to step back from video gaming as a hobby, and don’t define myself by the media I consume, as often seems to be the case for video game players. I’ve barely touched a game in the past week, instead taking up more enriching pursuits which include honestly almost anything a person can do. Obviously I still played Mario Kart, let’s not get crazy.

    Your comments about the whole debacle receiving an “anti-terror” level of response are interesting, but at the same time the laissez-faire attitude of most comment hosting and social media sites is a root of the problem. I would be fine with some dramatic and experimental responses to see what can be done to improve social spaces online. The only thing I have seen work is diligent moderation and that simply isn’t scalable for sites like Twitter or YouTube. On the other end of the spectrum is Miiverse, which is kind of amazing and wonderful, but useless for deep discussions due in part to the moderation.

  11. I don’t really want to get into this whole thing too much, but just to throw you some support, Jeremy: when you reveal that you’ve Kickstarted a game, it doesn’t, from my perspective, disqualify you from covering it — in fact, I consider Kickstarting it myself, and since you write about games professionally, I’m curious to read your impressions on the final product. I appreciate that there’re people in the gaming press who share my interests in terms of game design and whatever, and those are the people I follow. I recommend this philosophy to anybody: don’t worry about gaming journalists all being completely objective and free of bias; find the ones whose writing and perspective uniquely, subjectively resonates with you and support them. You’ll be less aggravated and have a lot more free time.

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